Bazooka Combat Performance Data
The popular narrative of bazooka ‘effectiveness’ (and anti-tank gun ‘ineffectiveness’) is built upon anecdotes such as those above, but are they “true” or even “accurate”?
About the time Dr. Wilbur D. Jones was releasing the apparent source of Dan Ward’s observations concerning ‘Bazookas’, the first volume of a report on what has to be the most detailed study produced on documented U.S. Infantry defensive anti-armor operations was produced by SAIC for the US Army Concepts Analysis Agency. Even though the “ANTI-ARMOR DEFENSE DATA STUDY” (Final Draft Report Volumes one, two, three and four) is probably the best summary of US Infantry defensive anti-armor operations in WWII available, it is still quite limited due to the dearth of historical records and surviving participants available as sources of information. The study focuses on the best documented combat action late in the war in Europe, and it clearly identified Allied bazooka experience in North Africa as unremarkable except for 1) the troops not using them and 2) the troops lack of training.
Out of 30 ‘Actions’ clearly identifiable as anti-tank defensive operations spanning significantly fewer battles (understandable, as the Allies were on the ‘offensive’ most of the time from the Normandy landings forward) probably fewer than a third involved significant bazooka actions, and the results were mixed at best.
The following excerpts from the study are a substantial sampling of those actions. They are quite lengthy and I believe fascinating, but feel free to skip some if you prefer. I include as many as I do lest someone accuse me of ‘cherry-picking’ the data.
July 1944 (Action 8)
Fifteen German tanks and several hundred -troops overran an outpost manned by a company of the recently "arrived battalion of the 4th Division. The American company commander was killed at once and the infantrymen fell back half a mile into the-positions of the 78th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Two artillery batteries in direct fire, a third in indirect fire, and four guns of the 702d Tank Destroyer Battalion, held off the Germans for thirty minutes until nearby armored infantrymen arrived to re-establish the outpost line. They found seven destroyed Mark IV tanks and counted more than 125 enemy dead."
DETAIL [Note, This reads as a “best defense is a good offense” story] As the four men, armed with small arms and a bazooka and carrying a dozen bazooka rounds between them, moved cautiously through the fog, the lead tanks and infantry of the 1st SS-Panzer Division were driving in the opposite direction on the main road just to the west, heading towards the south end of St. Barthelmy and the 57mm-ATgun position. Apparently Hardy's patrol knew nothing of the German advance; it is possible that the noise of the artillery barrage masked the sounds of moving tanks and the shouts of the German infantry commanders.
After walking about 300 meters down the trail, Hardy's patrol halted to get their bearings and "to see what was going to happen." A few minutes later, they heard tank noises off to their right, to the west. Sgt. Hardy crawled up onto the shrub-covered embankment to see if he could see the source. He saw a field on the other side of the hedgerow, about 70 meters wide, and another parallel hedgerow-on the other side of the field. On the other side of that hedgerow, three German tanks sat on the main road pointing north towards St. Barthelmy. The crews were standing together outside the tanks, talking noisily.
As nearly as can be determined, these tanks were part of the 1st SS-PzD's assault force which was halted on the Mortain-St. Barthelmy road by the action of the #1 gun of Lt. George Greene's 3d Platoon, B Co, 823d TD Bn, which destroyed the lead German Mk V Panther tank and blocked the road for about 40 minutes. It is likely that, while waiting for that blazing tank to be pushed from the road, the crews of these three tanks got out to discuss the situation.
hedgerows prevented them from detouring cross-country. Sgt. Hardy watched the Germans for about five minutes, barely able to see them through the murky fog. He and his men could hear the tank engines idling as their crews chatted loudly, sounding to the Americans as if they were drunk. Finally, Sgt. Hardy decided that since their job was to shoot at Germans, they might never have a better chance. Pvt. Ericcson, a Norwegian who had fled the German invasion of his country in 1940 and who "had no love for Germans," climbed to the top of the hedgerow with his bazooka."' He fired his first round into the middle of the group of men, who quickly scattered. Apparently none or few manned their tanks since they did not return fire at all. Sgt. Hardy then ordered Pvt. Ericsson to shoot at the tanks, which were probably Mk V Panthers.
Ericsson hit two-of the tanks in the engine compartment, which stopped the motors and set the vehicles on fire. The third tank was probably also hit, although just where and how badly is uncertain. Ericsson fired a total of 4 or 5 rounds, all of which hit. Smoke from the burning tanks quickly thickened the dense fog. During this whole episode, neither the tanks nor any German infantry which may have been present returned the Americans' fire.
Sgt. Hardy, deciding that they had done enough damage for one morning, led the patrol back up the trail to the 57mm gun position. When they reached the place, however, the gun, crew, and truck were gone.
10 September 1944 (Action 12)
Company C received suppressive fire from 3 German tanks, apparently unsupported by infantry, which then attacked toward the company. Company fired bazookas to no effect, and was forced to retreat. The unit suffered many casualties, many caused by tree bursts from tank rounds. Company commander killed. Mortar and artillery fire called in, but attack not stopped until P-47s (from XIX TAC) attacked the tanks.
4 November 1944 (Action 15)
After dawn, the Germans began to attack the -Americans defending Schmidt. After observed infantry infiltration, German forces consisting of approximately five tanks and one infantry battalion attacked down both roads. Bazooka fire seemingly had -no effect. The American units were effectively routed by the German armor, and by 1230 Schmidt had been recaptured by the Germans. 4 November 1944 (Action 16) At least five German tanks, with supporting infantry attacked. After a nasty battle, they were knocked out.
DETAIL Private William K. Soderman of K Co "began his own private war" by leaping into a roadside ditch with a bazooka and knocking out the lead panzer in full view of the enemy. This blocked the trail and forced the vehicles following to withdraw.
17 December 1944 (Action 19)
2/394th Infantry was holding north flank of regimental line at Murringen. At dawn the Germans attacked along the Neuhof road with tanks, directly attacking Company E. Artillery support and battalion mortar support augmented the Company's use of bazookas, with which it killed three tanks and halted the attack.
DETAIL "The result was a terrific small arms battle,"" during which Pvt Soderman of K Co continued his "private war" against the Germans. As some other panzers approached the remnants of his company, Soderman staged a repeat performance of his action earlier that morning by disabling the lead panzer with one shot from his bazooka. As he ran for cover after firing the weapon, however, one of the tanks fired a burst of machine gun fire which tore into his right shoulder.
17 December 1944 (Action 21)
Around 1930 three German tanks and perhaps a platoon of infantry passed through Company B before they were recognized as German. At approximately 2000', Company B engaged more of the same. Two tanks were disabled by mines, two others by bazookas. 15th FA Battalion provided support. An hour later, approximately 5-6 German tanks fired at the battalion for a half hour. A subsequent German infantry attack was cut down. A combined attack followed, which penetrated the battalion's position. One crippled tank was doused with gasoline and lit with thermite grenades. When the attack moved into the Company A sector, artillery "responded to the urgent call for help and within three minutes dropped in a concentration that stopped the assault." …
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: Battalion had fifteen extra bazookas. One individual [William A Soderman Documented in Actions 16 and 19. (source) ] received the Medal of Honor for destroying three tanks with bazooka rounds
DETAIL Just down the street, Lt Adams quickly organized two bazooka teams, using one launcher that his group had since the beginning and another that was scrounged from a jeep parked outside. These two teams fired numerous rounds at the passing panzers, scoring "many direct hits" on them but achieving no penetrations.
20-21 December 1944 (Action 23/24)
Major activity took place defending a bridge through Hotton. Individual actions--a single U.S. tank, a PVT manning a 37 mm. gun, and a PVT with a bazooka--were most significant. In the early evening the Americans captured a sanatorium in the town. The Germans counterattacked just before midnight with armor and infantry, and recaptured the sanatorium, but were unable to breakthrough due to "accurate and incessant shellfire."
DETAIL …Private Isabel Salazar, one of Love's AT Co staff members, grabbed a bazooka and one of the newly-arrived rockets and ran upstairs from the basement to one of the first-story windows. He fired and knocked out the Panther at 200 yards with that first shot. The Panther's momentum carried it forward until it came to rest alongside the Sherman's kill, the two wrecks very effectively blocking the road. …Firing from Capt Love's AT Co CP, Pvt Salazar repeated his morning performance by knocking out one of these, a PzJg IV from the 560th Hvy PzJg Bn, as it pulled up behind the two destroyed tanks blocking the southern road.
18 January 1945 (Action 27)
German force attacked out of Orscholz Switch, with axis of attack from Sinz through Butzdorf and Tettingen. Force consisted of 2 Panzer Grenadier regiments, 30 MARK IV tanks, and 20-30 assault guns. Following a twenty minute bombardment, the German force attacked both towns. The action lasted about an hour. American forces used mines, 57-mm. guns, and bazookas against the German armor. "Shortly after 0900 the Germans fell back, but just before noon ten tanks again emerged from Sinz, took up hull defilade positions and persistently pounded the two villages. At 1430 three fresh battalions of German infantry launched a fresh assault, this time primarily directed at Butzdorf," where a single American infantry company became isolated. The American company retreated after nightfall, leaving the Germans in control of Butzdorf, while the 284th and 919th FA Battalions provided covering fire.
DETAIL One of the AT men in the CP reacted and hit the Mk IV with a bazooka round, immobilizing it, while Love maneuvered one of the other TOs around to finish it off. Evidently the bazooka round had hit the panzer's engine compartment, because even though it saw the maneuvering TO it couldn't rotate its turret fast enough to get a shot at it
23-24 February 1945 (Action 29)
The first thrust hit just before 2100, employing a mixed force of about twenty assault guns and tanks accompanied by about 150 infantry." Artillery fire dispersed the first attack; however, later thrusts penetrated into the town. Infantry killed four MARK Vs with bazookas. "What the Americans reckoned as the fourth try brought the gravest crisis. Three hours before dawn on 24 February, tanks and infantry swarmed into the village, While the Americans huddled in cellars, forward observers called down artillery fire on their own positions. By daylight the Germans had fallen back, and a count revealed a surprisingly low total of thirty American casualties."
DETAIL The AT Platoon bazooka team fired several rounds at the Panther as it approached the carcasses of the third and fourth panzers, but none of the rounds penetrated the tank's armor…. …Just as it passed in front of that building, a self-propelled TD from the 644th TD Bn, which Col Barsanti had placed near the 3/38th CP to guard against a German attack from Bollingen, fired three rounds in rapid succession into the Panther's thinner rear armor at a range of 250-300 yards. That finally stopped the rampaging Panther, and as the crew bailed out of the tank, the L Co riflemen picked them off. When the panzer's hulk was examined later, it was found to have 11 bazooka holes in it (none of which apparently penetrated all the way through the armor), as well as the three TD penetrations in the rear and whatever mark the AT gun's round had left.
If you are really interested in this subject and don’t take the time to read all four volumes of the report from which the above excerpts were pulled, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. Between the interviews, maps, and records covered, the authors make the history palpable, and it presents much that I found surprising when I first read it a few years ago (example: Airpower gets a surprising amount of credit in a few places).
What strikes me most about the report as it pertains to bazooka use, is how for every example showing great effectiveness, there seems to be another one where the showing was ‘less than stellar’. There are documented cases of single low percentage shots taking out a tank and cases where bazooka rounds are poured into a tank with little effect. Bazookas were apparently effective against even the most heavily armored tanks at times, yet more often ineffective against even the lightest-armored panzers. Yet the conclusion offered in the report (in addition to repeating the not-completely-certain but popular claim that the German Panzerfaust was an improvement on Bazookas captured in North Africa) states:
Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge completed discrediting towed guns, where the battalions still using them suffered heavier losses with less effect than self-propelled units. During this battle, many infantrymen lost faith in the towed 57m gun and afterwards argued for it to be abandoned. However, the ubiquitous Bazooka, despite its inability to penetrate frontal armor, proved effective time and time again in the hands of brave soldiers willing to maneuver for shots at the sides and rear of heavy German tanks.
That summary dresses up a somewhat ugly and uneven record of bazooka performance, given the mixed results in the data. And a weapon that proves “effective”, as long as the operators were “brave” and “willing to maneuver” to get to the more vulnerable ‘bits’ of attacking Panzers, hardly rises to a reasonable standard for bestowing the descriptor “Magnificent” .
There's not a large repository of 'bazooka hits' on the web, but this photo gets cited more often than not as what it looks like when bazookas are fired at a late model Panzer post-mortem.
Wartime exigencies that drove rapid fielding ahead of American ground combat needs to first satisfy Allied demands may have contributed to preventing the 2.36” rocket launcher from ever reaching its full lethality. In fact, the biggest ‘story of the bazooka’ may be the story of ‘what might have been?’ (which we will get to in a moment) if it had not been rushed into the field.
The Bazooka: Evolution that Occurred and Signs of a ‘Missing Link’
After the initial batch of bazookas was shipped to the Soviets, the simplicity of the weapon did allow for an incredibly steep production ramp up and quick incorporation of minor modifications. Again referring to “A History of Innovation: U.S. Army Adaptation in War and Peace”:
The Army Supply Program of 10 July 1942 set a goal of building 75,000 rocket launchers by the end of the year. With the Soviet consignment out of the way, Skinner and Uhl concentrated on getting the new weapon into the hands of American troops. Ordnance specialists made only a few changes, improving the firing mechanism, shortening the overall length by 6 inches, and placing a fixed sight at the end of the tube. Difficulties in obtaining steel tubing and production delays created by design modifications combined to limit bazooka production that month to 241 units. Most of these problems, however, were overcome within a few weeks, and more than 37,000 rocket launchers were produced for the U.S. Army by the end of October.
And exactly what was the benefit of rushing these weapons into the field? Less than unhelpful. It appears that the rapid fielding of the bazooka may have been that rare case where the weapon system gets fielded too far ahead of the troops being ready to actually employ it. The Soviets were wise enough to order training rounds first, which implies an intent to train the troops prior to combat. Sadly, in North Africa the US initially was not ready for the bazooka, in addition to having a lot of other problems:
When the Army entered combat in 1942 in North Africa, the 37mm was the standard antitank weapon in the infantry divisions along with the Bazooka which was so new that the troops were introduced to it aboard the ships sailing to invade. (Source: ANTI-ARMOR DEFENSE DATA STUDY)
Fighting in North Africa had been fierce with the Fifth Army, which included the 34th Infantry Division, suffering many casualties (4,254 men wounded, killed or missing). The blame for this large number of casualties was placed on having raw green troops when, in fact, there was a leadership and equipment problem. For example, new soldiers arriving in theater did not receive any orientation prior to their arrival and there was no initial training after their arrival. Soldiers in the Division were issued Bazooka's the day before the battle at Fondouk Pass but they did not receive any training on the weapon. As a result, the Bazooka's were ineffectively employed against the newly fielded German Mark VI tanks. (The 60 ton Mark VI Tigers were first employed in limited numbers during the battle at Kasserme-Faid Pass.) (Source: MG (RET) BENJAMIN J. BUTLER: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF LEADERSHIP ON THE BATTLEFIELD)
M6A3C On Left
After the North Africa Campaign, there were various changes to the Bazooka design that amounted mostly to tweaks at the ‘margins’. There were a series of minor rocket/warhead design changes, the tube length changed and then a two-piece tube was fielded to increase portability. The number of pistol grips was changed from two to one, and wooden ‘furniture’ was replaced with more durable and lighter metal pieces. Possibly the most important change not having to do with the projectile was changing the ignition system from a battery-operated system to one driven by a friction generator in the trigger for increased launch reliability.
Perhaps the most important improvement was the upgrade of the Rocket and Warhead to the M6A3C configuration, with a new tail design and ogive (vs, pointed) nosecap. This change reduced the number of impacts occurring without detonation (duds) and improved reliability/accuracy by replacing the deployable fins with an annular ring/fin arrangement.
Yet the too-frequent bazooka impacts and detonation without penetration persisted through to the end of the war.
The answer may be that the operators never knew enough about their weapons, in particular the effects to be expected when a shaped-charge explosive train sequences properly, to report a particular (low-order detonation) failure mode, and the design engineers weren’t close enough to the battlefield to see the forensic evidence that would have revealed each failure to go ‘high order’ as a failure, and/or perhaps their testing methods were too crude to even find the failure mode?
Observations from two doyens of ballistics design and test indicate that this speculation may be close to the truth. Donald R. Kennedy has the design of the AGM-65 Maverick warhead, among other design credits, and is considered an authority on not only the effects of warheads on armor, but also on armor resistance to anti-armor ordnance: He’s worked both sides of the issue. (Note: through his writings, I also found him far more credible on Bradley IFV survivability than anyone I can think of in the ‘Reform’ camp.) In his HISTORY OF THE SHAPED CHARGE EFFECT: The First 100 Years, he writes [emphasis mine]:
In the Sicilian campaign, the U.S. Army's Lt. General James Gavin was to later observe (Ref. 77) that the Bazooka lacked penetration capability and that his troops were literally being crushed into the earth by German tanks they were unable to defeat. General Gavin lamented that the weapon "could have been tested against the German tanks captured in North Africa, but evidently it was not." But according to other sources, the weapons had been tested against German tanks in North Africa. In retrospect, it is possible that the problem was not in the lack of penetration of the shaped charge, but the failure of the fuzes to initiate the warhead quickly enough.
In 1951, this writer was invited to observe infantry training at Camp Roberts, California, where it was obvious that the 2.36-inch Bazookas were, for the most part, failing to detonate high order and form a jet as designed. Instead, most of the rounds were apparently functioned low order from crush-up on the target, as evidenced by the presence of many undeformed conical liners laying about on the test field. Further, the damage to the armor targets usually resembled that produced by a HEP or squash head mechanism. Even the Army instructors seemed to be unaware that their
Bazookas were malfunctioning. They described the Bazooka's terminal effect as "discharging a baseball sized chunk of metal from the far side of the armor." There was no mention of a penetration hole.
Arthur Stein, Past President and Fellow of the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) refers to Kennedy’s passage in an article collated within an Army Research Lab Special Report “Historical Perspectives on Vulnerability/Lethality Analysis” and makes further observations on the probable source of the bazooka’s failures [emphasis mine]:
In my opinion the problem was not that the Bazooka had not been tested against armor but that it indeed was the excessively long delay before the warhead functioned, and hence it had the wrong standoff and perhaps even damaged the cone before functioning. Would not that have been found out in testing? Not if the tests were static warhead tests rather than dynamic tests of the fired system. There are still many testers who believe that static tests of shaped charge warheads are preferable since then you could hit where you want to and the remaining velocity should not add any significant increase in effects. The demonstration of appropriate fuze time-to-function under realistic dynamic conditions is critical, however, as was shown by this early combat example.
Earler Rocket Configuration: Pointed Nosecap and Folding Fins
What Might Have Been
Changing the ‘standoff’ of the shaped charge would not have been more involved than other warhead design changes that were made, and from review of the many engagements where the 2.36” rockets stopped armor only after multiple hits, or not at all, it is easy to see how a more effective bazooka could have forced Germany to change its Armor tactics.
IMHO they would have been a lot less aggressive against even small and isolated infantry groups, if the Pk of the 2.36” rocket improved only slightly. If the probability of the warhead’s high-order detonation improved to just 50%, US infantry offensive tactics against armor could have possibly emerged in the hedgerows. Perhaps then, by December 1944, instead of having a surrounded Bastogne, not even the most fervent Nazi would have considered a ‘Battle of the Bulge’ scenario. We’ll never know.
Bazooka as a Case Study: Lessons Learned
There’s a long list, but two of the most important ones need to be acknowledged as from them most others will spring.
First: If you are going to rush a system into the field, you need to test the critical functions of the system until they are fully understood. You don’t have to wait to field the system until testing is complete, you just have to test it enough to first make certain it has military value, and then keep testing it though it is already fielded. There’s no guarantee you will get timely AND useful feedback from the user, nor of users in the field benefiting from the additional knowledge gained in testing, so a feedback loop is necessary -- as the Bazooka perfectly illustrates.
Second: While you can rush a system into the field before testing is complete, you cannot do so ahead of first adequately training the users. Worse than unhelpful, it can sow frustration and confusion and be counterproductive to the mission. With a relatively new technology (such as shaped-charge warheads in the Bazooka’s case) it is critical that the users understand what the weapon is actually supposed to do. Without proper training it is impossible to provide timely feedback as mentioned above.
Bazooka: the Verdict.
A militarily useful weapon that could have been ‘Magnificent’, but wasn’t.