Infantry Anti Tank Guns
When the first tanks appeared on the battlefields of the Great War, desperate measures were called for to halt them. One of these was turning the fire of existing Field Guns against them. In the post-war era dedicated weapons could be developed and so the Anti Tank Gun came about.
The Infantry has never much liked to be burdened by artillery pieces, so in many armies the weapons were shunted off to Regimental or Brigade level to serve in their own Batteries. The experience of Blitzkrieg though showed the anti tank gun was now a necessity rather than a complication and by mid-war most Infantry Battalions had their own Platoon of varying size under command.
The anti tank gun enjoyed a turbulent existence during the Second World War. The designs which existed at the outset quickly proved to be incapable of destroying the then generation of tanks in service. Improved weapons were called for but were universally slow in reaching the troops. By the time they did so the armoured fighting vehicle had made another leap in its evolution and the weapons were outclassed again. By the end of the war in 1945 the major combatants were on their third or fourth design since 1939. As the guns became increasingly heavier they could only properly be deployed by dedicated tank killer units and the infantry were left with the 'medium' guns to defend themselves against the Tigers and Iosef Stalins then in service.
The first generation of anti tank guns were all around 40 mm calibre and were intentionally lightweight. The idea was the more portable the weapons the less of an encumbrance they would prove. The guns were usually of the same calibre as that used in their own nation's tanks. The problem came when it was found that in combat both the tank mounted and towed guns were incapable of penetrating the armour of the newest machines. In tanks this could be overcome by removing the existing gun and replacing it with a heavier version, complicated but still achievable. This could not be done with towed guns; the entire weapon was rendered obsolete and a new one was needed. But the new guns were allocated to replace the old armament of the tanks, so the Infantry found themselves waiting in line behind the tankers.
The same farce was played out in every army, British, German, Russian and to a lesser extent American. New guns began arriving during 1942 to 1943, mostly with a calibre increased by around 20 mm on their predecessor. As soon as they did the heavy tanks appeared and the guns were obsolete yet again, but this time they could not be replaced. The final generation of anti tank guns were allocated to pure artillerymen, not the infantry. As their anti tank ability waned though other uses were found for the guns. High explosive rounds could be fired by many and they were deployed as ad hoc support weapons and they were still lethal against some of the older tanks and any light armoured vehicles.
The original solid shot relying entirely on kinetic energy was replaced by the hollow charge type high explosive anti tank (HEAT) rounds, the merits of which are described on the Infantry Anti Tank Weapons page. There also emerged the 'sub calibre' round which used a case that was discarded in flight case to launch an arrowhead projectile. Tungsten cores were added to rounds to increase their density. The combination of these new rounds with the higher velocity possible from a long barrelled gun increased range and accuracy dramatically. But the anti tank gun had shown its limitations and was not pursued after the war. The increases in calibre and weight of the pieces could not be sustained, especially in the light of the new rockets which could deliver a killer blow from a simple launch tube. Most nations finished their development with weapons of around 75 mm in calibre, the Germans and Russians fielding 88 mm and 100 mm types respectively as well.
Below are detailed the more important types deployed by the major combatants during World War Two. It should be noted that many nations also produced anti tank rounds for use by their standard field guns in an emergency, coming back full circle to the tactics of the Great War.
Given the multiplicity of ammunition types used, the conflicting statistics for their performance and the variations caused by angle of impact, the figures below are only intended to provide a rough guide to ballistic performance and are not presented as gospel.
The British Army
2 pounder Anti Tank Gun
|Elevation||-13 to + 15 degrees|
|Shot weight||1 kg|
|Armour Penetration||53 mm|
|Muzzle velocity||800 metres per second|
|Effective range||450 m|
The 2 pdr on the firing range, with the wheels removed to reduce the silhouette of the weapon, displaying the unusual cruciform mounting
6 pounder Anti Tank Gun
|Elevation||-5 to + 15 degrees|
|Shot weight||2.9 kg|
|Armour Penetration||69 mm|
|Muzzle velocity||900 metres per second|
|Effective range||900 m|
A 6 pdr crew with their gun in Normandy, displaying the distinctive blast shield. The 6 pdr also equipped the US Army as the 57 mm M1
The British Infantry Battalions quickly divested themselves of the 2 pdr guns they were issued with prior to the war, relying entirely on the Batteries attached to each Brigade for the initial period. Action in North Africa showed each unit needed its own organic troop and the 2 pdr was recalled. The Royal Artillery though was little worried as the gun was now useless against all but a minority of German tanks, so the Infantry were left with a dud.
It was known early on the weapon was outclassed, but the overly familiar game of 'nothing at all or hold on for a while longer' was played again, with the usual consequences for the troops. The 2 pdr was unusual in that it could be lowered off its road wheels which were then detached and mounted on a cruciform. This allowed full 360 degree traverse, but the range was so limited as to be useless in the North African desert where opportunities for firing from ambush at close quarters were practically nil. It could also be carried on the back of a lorry and fired while mounted or deployed on the ground. It was withdrawn from the British units in the North Africa before they were committed to Europe, but in the Far East it could still destroy the ancient Japanese tanks and its relatively lightweight was a bonus so it remained in limited service.
The 6 pdr gun arrived in time for the start of 1942 and was rushed to North Africa where it enjoyed great success against an Afrika Korps used to the 'peashooter' 2 pdr. With double the effective range and a third greater penetration it was a revelation. Then the Germans spoiled it by debuting the Panther and Tiger tanks. The Royal Artillery was scheduled to receive the 17 pdr (76 mm) gun and again the Infantry were issued their hand-me-downs in the shape of the 6 pdr. The deal was not quite as bad as before though and the 6 pdr remained the equipment of the Anti Tank Platoons of Infantry, Motor and Air Landing Battalions to the end.
The United States Army
M3A1 Anti Tank Gun
|Elevation||-10 to + 15 degrees|
|Shot weight||0.86 kg|
|Armour Penetration||53 mm|
|Muzzle velocity||880 metres per second|
|Effective range||450 m|
US recruits examining the 37 mm M3A1 which was to see only limited Army service, but was retained by the Marine Corps throughout the war
The 37 mm was one of several allied weapons copied from the German Pak35/36 described below. It received its first combat outing in North Africa where the Americans encountered the same frustrations as the British against the Panzer III 'Specials' and the long barrelled Panzer IVs.
To fill the gap the US Army adopted the unusual policy of buying a British weapon - perhaps the first time ever trade went west across the Atlantic. They produced the 6 pdr gun as the 57 mm M1 and it remained in service with their Infantry and Armored Infantry units throughout the war as well. More valuable support came from the 3 in (76 mm) M5 gun deployed by the Tank Destroyer units attached to Infantry Divisions.
But history was kinder to the 37 mm than to the British 2 pdr. The US Marine Corps needed a light, mobile weapon it could deploy in the island campaign they were fighting in the Pacific. The 57 mm was too heavy for the role, so the 37 mm was chosen. It could be, and often was, manhandled across beaches and other shore obstacles. The few Japanese tanks likely to be encountered were well within the capability of the anti tank rounds fired, but high explosive and canister rounds were more often used and the weapon became an invaluable support item.
The Red Army
M1942 Anti Tank Gun
|Elevation||-8 to + 25 degrees|
|Shot weight||1.4 kg|
|Armour Penetration||50 mm|
|Muzzle velocity||820 metres per second|
|Effective range||500 m|
The diminutive 45 mm, kept in Red Army service long beyond reason due to the lack of a suitable replacement
ZiS 2 Anti Tank Gun
|Shot weight||3.1 kg|
|Armour Penetration||84 (?) mm|
|Muzzle velocity||990 metres per second|
|Effective range||900 (?) m|
A 57 mm on parade ground duty, the gun was too heavy to move without motor transport and so was denied to the Rifle Battalions who needed its firepower
The Red Army also copied the German 3.7 cm Pak to provide their anti tank weapon. Unlike other armies though, their initial weapon remained in service throughout the war, even in the face of the new Panzers.
The original M1937 in service at the time of the Nazi invasion was not much better than the 2 pdr described above and a replacement was urgently needed. When it arrived the troops must have realised they were in for a hard time of it against the Panzers, as the 'new' gun was little more than a longer barrelled version of the old. The M1942 lengthened the barrel to increase muzzle velocity and as a result penetration but the universal description for the change was marginal. The truly incredible thing is though that the weapon was to remain in frontline use right through the war and even beyond. It gradually became an infantry support gun, firing high explosive rounds in the bitter street fighting that characterised the Red Army drive into Germany.
The weapon was supplemented by the 57 mm ZiS-2. This weapon had originally been shelved in favour of much larger calibre weapons when German armour was thought to be much harder to overcome than was the case. The 57 mm was much heavier than the 45 mm and as a result not suited to the average Rifle Battalion which relied on horses or manpower to pull its weapons. The 57 mm was though to be found in motorised formations, but on a much smaller scale than the 45 mm.
The German Army
Pak 35/36 (Panzerabwehrkanone)
|Elevation||-8 to + 25 degrees|
|Shot weight||0.68 kg|
|Armour Penetration||36 mm|
|Muzzle velocity||750 metres per second|
|Effective range||500 m|
German Paratroops manning a 3.7 cm late war, showing the small size of the weapon which remained in service in some areas to the end of the war
|Elevation||- 8 to + 27 degrees|
|Shot weight||2 kg|
|Armour Penetration||55 mm|
|Muzzle velocity||835 metres per second|
|Effective range||1000 m|
A Pak 38 in some cover. If the rings painted on the barrel are a record of 'kills' and not an odd camouflage technique this crew enjoyed some success in their wartime service
The 3.7 cm anti tank gun spawned several copies in the allied camp and saw widespread use in the German Army. The initial encounters though with heavy British infantry tanks and later Red Army T34s and KVs showed the time had come for a replacement. Efforts were made to extend its service with new ammunition, including a hollow charge grenade which was fitted over the muzzle like a rifle launched version.
In Panzer Grenadier units equipped with armoured halftracks the gun was mounted on the SdKfz 250/11 and the SdKfz 251/10 on the light and medium carrier respectively.
The 5 cm began to gradually replace the 3.7 cm 'doorknocker' and for a while offered some improvement, but the Germans were gradually turning to the 7.5 cm Pak as their standard weapon, though there were never enough to suffice so the 5 cm was still to be found in the line.
Both weapons could fire high explosive rounds as well as anti tank and the 3.7 cm was probably of more value in this role than in resisting the T34. The German Army used a variety of captured weapons in the anti tank role, including the Russian 76.2 mm M1936, M1939 and the Czech 47 mm Skoda vz 36.
Infantry Weapons of World War Two
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