Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Fall of Singapore in 1942

Fortress Singapore Falls

Japanese troops in Johor, January 1942
Japanese troops celebrate victory in Malaya, 31 January 1942. (Robert Hunt Library).
The fall of Singapore was one of the most searing moments of World War II for both sides. The Japanese conquest of Singapore in February 1942 marked the nadir of Allied fortunes in World War II, at least on an emotional level. The public was unprepared for Singapore's loss and it fell quicker than even the Allied leaders expected. Why Singapore fell so quickly is a complicated question encompassing years of British Imperial overstretch and neglect. How Singapore fell, though, is a straightforward tale of Japanese audacity and British overconfidence which robbed the perfectly defensible island of its natural defensive strengths.

Surrender of Singapore 15 February 1942
In Singapore, British troops surrender to the Japanese, 15 February 1942 (Daily Mail).

Prelude to the Battle of Singapore

The British acquired Singapore from the Johor Sultanate in 1824 after a series of deals initiated by governor Stamford Raffles. They made it the regional capital in 1836 and vastly increased the population from about a thousand people under the Sultanate to over 80,000 by 1860. The majority of the population was ethnic Chinese who arrived to work on pepper, rubber, and gambier plantations. The island was considered easily defended from land attack due to its location at the extreme end of the long Malay Peninsula and the dense jungles which hindered land movements. Thus, the Royal Navy concentrated its efforts on defending the island from sea attack, though there weren't any particularly dangerous naval powers in the area, either.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
Singapore. Some of the city buildings with smoke rising from fires caused by bombing in Japanese air attacks, only days before the Japanese landed on the island. 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/01).
Relations between the British and the local citizenry generally were correct if not exactly warm. However, there were occasional frictions in Singapore arising along ethnic lines. The most serious of these was the 1915 Singapore Mutiny when Indian garrison troops refused to be sent to fight fellow Muslims in the Middle East during World War I. However, the British were well-versed in handling different factions and simply brought in non-Muslim troops from Johore and Burma to suppress the Mutiny. Things then continued pretty much as they had before.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
Singapore. Smoke haze over the city after bomb attacks by Japanese. 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/07).
In order to provide a strong anchor to their far-flung possessions in the Pacific region, the British built the Singapore Naval Base during the 1920s and 1930s. Largely completed by 1938, the base included 15-inch naval guns stationed at Fort Siloso, Fort Canning, and Labrador. The Royal Air Force concentrated its forces at Tengah Air Base in the center of the island. Having recently spent massive sums of money on Singapore, the British government sought to convince the public of the worthiness of these expenditures by hyping the power and durability of the Singapore Naval Base. However, having spent all of that money on Singapore's fortifications, there was none left over to build and station a fleet there. This was considered a mere blemish on the strategy because, in the event of a conflict, the Royal Navy could always send ships from the Home Fleet as necessary. Considering Singapore's secure location and the absence of nearby powerful naval forces, little thought was given to this eventuality.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
"Singapore. Soldiers and civilians co-operate in rescuing wounded from damaged buildings after bombing in Japanese air attacks." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/18).
An escalating deterioration of relations with Japan in 1941 forced the British to reinforce Singapore, so Prime Minister Winston Churchill, against the advice of First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound and others, resorted to the established plan of sending warships there. Naturally, with the homeland in danger, the smallest possible force that would make an impact was chosen. On 25 October 1941, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips departed from Great Britain in command of Force G, composed of his flagship, the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, together with the veteran Great War-era battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and the four destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Express, HMS Encounter, and HMS Jupiter. Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, understood the danger of sending the ships into a hostile area and warned the crew of the Repulse of the perils when he addressed them along the way in Durban. This must have been demoralizing - but it was accurate.

HMS Prince of Wales in Singapore, 2 December 1941
"HMS 'Prince of Wales', flagship of Force Z, approaching her berth at the Singapore naval base, 2 December 1941." The Prince of Wales was the victor in the North Atlantic against the Bismarck, and the Admiralty has sent it to Singapore along with cruiser Repulse in a show of force. This is Task Force Z under the command of Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips. © IWM (FE 485). 
The fleet had no air cover. New aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable was supposed to accompany Force G, but it ran aground in the West Indies and was unavailable. As this fleet movement was considered simply a precautionary move anyway and as a show of force to the Japanese, the absence of the carrier was not considered critical. There were still powerful voices in the Royal Navy that did not fully appreciate the danger of air attacks despite the many instances of its power, such as the 1940 raid on the Italian naval base of Taranto. The lack of urgency of the mission was illustrated by the presence of Phillips himself, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the China Station. He was a "desk admiral" without battle experience. In any event, the ships arrived in Singapore on 2 December 1941 and were redesignated Force Z.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
A Japanese Navy photograph (extensively highlighted for propaganda effect) showing HMS Prince of Wales at upper left and Repulse beside it slightly close to the camera. An unidentified destroyer is at lower right (© IWM (HU 2762)). 

The British Naval Catastrophe

The entire British premise for the defense of Singapore was that it would and could be defended at sea. This proved to be completely erroneous, and it led to one of the greatest naval disasters the Royal Navy ever suffered. Moving Force Z there, though, really was not intended to even accomplish this objective of defending Singapore. In reality, a few ships, no matter how large, could not stop an entire country bent on conquest like Japan. Instead, it was more of a propaganda move, designed to demonstrate the British commitment to its Far East possessions and try to keep the Japanese from doing anything rash. Whatever the intent was - it failed.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
"Japanese Forces: Japanese cruiser CHOKAI whose seaplane sighted the British ships, HMS PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE, on 9 December 1941. The next morning they were attacked by Japanese aircraft and both were sunk off the coast of Malaya. The majority of the crews were rescued. The sinkings were an appalling blow to British prestige." © IWM (MH 6207).
The Japanese attacks beginning on 7 December 1941 (actually 8 December 1941 locally due to the International Date Line) took everyone by surprise. British confidence in Singapore was buoyed by the arrival of Force Z, which everyone could see by a glance at the harbor. Sending the ships there now, after the outbreak of war, seemed like a masterstroke of foresight and good planning. Instead, though, it was a disastrous miscalculation, since the ships lacked adequate protection and could do little useful while being placed in great danger. The intent of stopping Japanese aggression had failed. Phillips, with no recent battle experience, considered the lack of RAF support (most of the planes at Tengah Airfield were obsolete) to be unimportant and decided to do what he wanted regardless. Upon reports of Japanese landings along the Malay Peninsula, Philips took Task Force Z out of Singapore harbor at 17:35 on 8 December 1942 for a sortie up the eastern coast. His objective was to disperse any landing operations and intercept Japanese convoys. Early on the 9th, the RAF notified Phillips that air support would be unavailable. He shrugged this off, considering capital ships able to defend themselves against air attack.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
"A Japanese aerial photograph showing HMS PRINCE OF WALES (top) and HMS REPULSE during the early stages of the attack in which they were sunk. HMS REPULSE had just been hit for the first time (12.20 hours)." © IWM (HU 2763).
The Japanese indeed were landing on the Malay Peninsula. Japanese scout planes and submarine I-65 (Lieutenant Commander Harada Hakue) soon spotted Force Z. After his lookouts spotted the shadowing aircraft, Phillips decided that discretion was the better part of valor and reversed course toward Singapore without spotting any Japanese ships. However, as he was heading south again, British headquarters in Singapore radioed that there were reports of Japanese landings at Kuantan. Since this was nearby, Phillips decided to divert toward this area.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
Sailors abandon HMS Prince of Wales as it increasingly lists. Falling off the rope would mean almost certain death as you got caught between the two ships (AP Photo).
The reports were erroneous, however, and the Force Z found no enemy landings. Phillips, undeterred, steamed aimlessly along the coast looking for the nonexistent invasion (which was only happening far to the north). By now, it was first light on 10 December 1942, and lookouts spotted shadowing Japanese planes. Japanese bombers arrived overhead around 11:00 and quickly scored hits on Repulse and then Prince of Wales. A total of 86 Japanese bombers and torpedo bombers sent both ships to the bottom by early afternoon, depriving Singapore once again of naval protection.

General Percival, captured on 15 February 1942
Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the British commander in Singapore (Daily Mail).

Catastrophes on Land

British Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, based in Singapore, was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Malaya. Like Phillips, Percival was a staff officer with little active command experience. Bravely requesting an active command after the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, Percival spent the next year supervising the construction of beach defenses along the British coast. In April 1941, Percival became GOC Malaya despite knowing little of the region. Due to Axis advances in the Middle East, his flight from England took two weeks aboard a Sunderland flying boat.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
"Singapore. Black smoke billows into the air from a timber yard ablaze after a Japanese air attack." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/29).
The situation in the Pacific began deteriorating almost immediately after Percival's arrival. The Japanese occupied French Indochina in July 1941. This brought Japanese forces much closer to British possessions, shortening the warning time of an attack. It also resulted in the imposition of economic sanctions by Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands. The Japanese economy and military needed foreign oil, particularly from the Netherlands East Indies. These sanctions gave the militarist faction in Tokyo an advantage over those who preferred a peaceful resolution to the brewing conflict. In addition, since the oil fields lay to the south, the sanctions helped to convince the Japanese to attack south against the British, Americans, and Dutch rather than north against the Soviet Union as the Germans wished.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
"Singapore. Neither the cattle nor their attendant seem in the least perturbed by smoke billowing from a nearby blaze, the result of a Japanese air raid." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/30).
The Japanese 25th Army under the command of Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita began landing on the Malay Peninsula an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first landings were at Kota Bharu, soon followed by additional invasions at Singora and Pattani on the south-eastern coast of Thailand. Thailand did not resist the landings, and the Japanese troops quickly headed south into northern Malaya. The small British forces in the area, including the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier B. W. Key) of Indian 9th Infantry Division (Major General A. E. Barstow), were quickly overwhelmed at the Battle of Jitra on 11-13 December 1941. The Japanese were great jungle fighters, bypassing British defensive positions and then cutting lines of communication. The British forces, meanwhile, used traditional European warfare tactics of blocking roads, occupying towns and other strongpoints, and trying to maintain a fixed defensive line. The Japanese tactics prevailed.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
Singapore. Singapore firefighters quelling a fire with their water hoses after a bombing raid by the Japanese. 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/27).
London already had given Percival permission to respond to Japanese aggression. The long-standing plan to defend Singapore was called Operation Matador. It envisioned deploying troops under British command (understood to be principally Indian troops) to northern Malaya and defend the peninsula as far north as possible. Percival, however, decided to cancel Matador due to having insufficient forces. Relying largely on forces already in the field, the British were pushed back everywhere. Due to heavy air losses early in the campaign, Percival ordered the RAF to focus on the defense of Singapore rather than giving support to the ground troops. Japanese troops showed incredible bravery in a series of daring attacks but also began establishing a reputation for brutality and savagery (reinforced by similar reports from Hong Kong). The 11th Indian Division was mauled during defensive stands that turned into nothing more than delaying actions. Soon, the battle was rolling south toward Singapore itself, which the British never expected to be in the front lines. The Battle of Malaya was over by the end of January 1942.

Hong Kong News, January 1942
Hong Kong News, 31 January 1942.
While, as noted, the British had spent vast sums of money on the Singapore naval base, virtually nothing had been done to build fortifications along the northern shore of Singapore Island. This was mostly due to the mistaken belief that the jungles were impenetrable and a small defensive force could hold any attacker at bay. This strategy failed and placed Singapore itself at risk. Belatedly, in late December 1941, Percival tried to hire native laborers to begin building bunkers. However, with the Japanese approaching quickly, the workers refused to do any work until the British raised their wages. The workers were likely underpaid, but the British had a long history of these types of native issues and just handled things normally without any sense of urgency. The strike dragged on and took over a week to resolve. In the end, virtually nothing was done to protect Singapore's vulnerable northern coastline.

Japanese troops in Johor, Malaya, January 1942

The Attack on Singapore

The defense of Singapore itself began with the British demolition of the causeway to Johore, the only land connection, at 08:00 on 31 January 1942. The British had about 85,000 defenders on Singapore, outnumbering the Japanese force of about 40,000 men. However, many of the British personnel were either tired veterans of the lost Malayan Campaign or new arrivals without experience or adequate weapons. Many were service troops or bureaucrats who were of no help in a crisis. The Japanese troops quickly closed up to the shoreline, and the two sides faced each other across the Straits of Johor. Japanese bombers mounted daily raids on the island, particularly the port area. The day of reckoning had arrived.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
"Singapore. Smoke rises from a demolished building on Rochor Canal Road (note the fallen signpost) after the air attack by the Japanese. A burnt-out vehicle lies on its side in front of the ruins of the wrecked building." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/31).
The British command divided Singapore Island into three sectors: Indian 3 Corps in the North Area, Singapore Fortress troops in the South Area, and Australian troops with the Indian 44th Brigade in the West Area. Fighting quickly died down, and for a few days activity was confined to air attacks, patroling, and artillery exchanges. The British had one artillery battery that could fire on the mainland, but it was equipped with armor-piercing ammunition designed to be used against warships. This ammunition was of little use against anything but ships - and the Japanese were not using ships. Most of the British shells exploded relatively harmlessly in the jungle or destroyed non-essential local buildings. Japanese troops, often disguised as civilian refugees, began infiltrating across the strait in small groups.

The Sunday News of 1 February 1942
The 1 February 1942 Sunday News in New York shows the situation in Singapore, which has captured world attention.
On 1 February 1942, the Japanese began mounting fierce air raids against the isolated Commonwealth forces on Singapore island. There were so many corpses that the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit has to collect them in special daily truck collections and dump them in mass graves. Civilian laborers who half-heartedly finally had begun building fortification along the water's edge began disappearing as Japanese troops began taking potshots at them. Because the British always had assumed that Singapore would be defended on the mainland, very little planning has been done for defending the island itself and the defenses are ad hoc. Still, with the causeway cut, the Japanese knew they would have to stage a major invasion to get across the Singapore Strait and claim final victory. The British get some good news during the day when Convoy MS-1 arrives. It is composed of British freighters City of Manchester, Derrymore, and Gordon Peisander, and Norwegian freighter Pan Europe and tanks War Sirdar. The convoy arrives in Singapore escorted by light cruiser HMAS Hobart and destroyers Tenedos and Stronghold.

Sailors in Singapore on 2 February 1942
"Kepper Harbour, Singapore. 2 February 1942. Men of HMAS Hobart returning electric sewing machines in wooden crates that they had found in a godown (storage shed where incoming merchant goods were stored after unloading), just before the fall of Singapore. Approximately fifty sailors were placed under guard on the quarterdeck by the gunnery officer before Captain H. Howden returned to the ship from the dockyard and ordered the sailors to return the machines to the godown. However, some machines were brought back to the ship with a lot of other selected material. The Captain returned to the ship with a car and the dockyard crest, both of which were shipped back to Australia. (Donor M. Williams)" Australian War Memorial P02497.026.
February 2nd, 1942, was the last relatively quiet day in Singapore because the Japanese had not yet brought up their artillery. By now, the RAF is withdrawing all of its planes from the airfield at RAF Tengah in the Western Area to the Netherlands East Indies. The British decide that the most vulnerable sector for landings is the northwest part of Singapore Island. This area, where the Strait is narrow, also is the most difficult to defend because it is composed of mangrove swamps, jungles, creeks, and rivers. The British remain confident at this point because they are still able to receive reinforcements and leave by sea, and there really isn't much sense of urgency in the city.

Singapore bombing, 3 February 1942
"Singapore. Two women sit on the street among rubble and debris wailing and crying, showing their grief for the small child whose dead body lies nearby in front of a damaged rickshaw after a Japanese air attack." 3 February 1942 (Bottomley, Clifford, Australian War Memorial 011529/22).
By 3 February 1942, the Japanese had brought up their heavy artillery and begun shelling the island. British counter-fire is weak,  hampered by a lack of high explosive shells. While the port of Singapore remained open, using it proved increasingly hazardous. The Japanese continued bombing Singapore and sank 10,224-ton British cargo liner Talthybius (later salvaged by the Japanese and put in service as Taruyasu Maru). Another British freighter, 4958-ton Loch Ranza, was bombed by Japanese planes and sunk while en route from Singapore to Batavia. The captain beached the ship, but it blew up. The Loch Ranza crew escaped and was rescued by HMAS Toowoomba. British 6121-ton tanker Pinna was hit during the same raid, also was beached, and also was lost on 3 February 1942.
The Evening Leader, 4 February 1942
The Evening Leader of 4 February 1942 almost gets it right - but the reality is that Japanese guns are shelling British troops in Singapore, too.
The British abandoned Tengah Airfield on 4 February 1942. In truth, this was not a major loss because there are few airplanes left in Singapore by then anyway. The Japanese issued a formal demand for surrender which the British summarily refused. British Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, who expected an attack in the northeast sector because that was where the causeway was, orders his few Australian defenders in the northwest area of the island to go to the edge of the coast. This was a poor decision because the defenders there were separated by the Kranji River. This meant that they could not support each other and would be fighting completely separate battles. The soldiers there also were spread thin by covering a very long (11 mile, or 18 km) coastline. The Australian troops planned to send patrols over the Singapore Strait to Johor after dark to gather intelligence on the gathering Japanese forces.

Empress of Asia, 5 February 1942
Empress of Asia on fire and sinking, port view, 5 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial P01604.001).
The British situation in Singapore already was growing dire by 5 February 1942. The British retained access to the sea, but the Japanese control of the air and made all sea transits extremely dangerous for them. Canadian 16,909-ton troopship RMS Empress of Asia, part of Convoy BM-12, was approaching Singapore's western approaches when nine Japanese dive-bombers attacked. They focused on the Empress of Asia, setting it afire. The ship made it to Sultan Shoal, where it anchored while taking on water. Australian sloop HMAS Yarra successfully executed an extremely dangerous maneuver and came alongside, taking off 1804 survivors of the crew and 18th British Division. HMAS Bendigo picked up 78 men in the water, and HMAS Wollongong later rescued two more, the Empress of Asia's master and chief engineer. Only sixteen men perished, all in the initial attack. After everyone who survived was rescued, the Empress of Asia sank near Sultan Shoal. More important than the loss of the ship itself (which could have taken off refugees from Singapore) was the loss of all the military equipment on board which was badly needed by the British and Chinese defenders on the island.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
General Tomoyuki Yamashita.
Japanese commander General Tomoyuki Yamashita ostentatiously moved into the former Imperial Palace of the Sultan of Johore on the northern side of the causeway. This gave him a panoramic view of the causeway and the north shore of Singapore Island. His presence there created an appearance that the Japanese invasion would come at the causeway, which British  Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya Command, expected. Percival accordingly reinforced the area along the coast just west of the causeway. General Yamashita began planning his invasion for 9 February 1942 and refused to leave the palace despite British artillery fire. He correctly surmised that the British would not shell the palace itself for fear of angering the native Johor population. British Major-General Gordon Bennett, in command of the artillery, was informed by Australian spotters of Yamashita's presence but did exactly as Yamashita expected - he did not shell the palace.

NY Times 6 February 1942,
The New York Times of 6 February 1942 provides on page 2 a helpful map of Singapore. The caption to the map begins, "In heavy shelling of Japanese position at Johore Bahru, Singapore's guns silenced some enemy batteries," which tells you straight off that we are dealing with fantasy.
At 11:00 on  6 February 1942. Yamashita summoned his officers to his headquarters in the palace and gave them the plan of attack. He planned a feint in the northeast on the night of 7 February, when he would have the ceremonial Imperial Guards Division take Palau Ubin Island opposite Chang in the northeast of Singapore. The real attack would begin on February 8th, when the 5th and 18th Divisions would mount the main invasion in northwest Singapore. The more perceptive British strategists in Singapore, such as British chief engineer Brigadier Ivan Simson, anticipated this plan and warned General Percival that the danger lay in the northwest. Percival, however, remained convinced that the attack would occur in the east because it provided a more direct route to the heart of Singapore.

Battle of Singapore, 8 February 1942,
Japanese troops crossing the Singapore Strait to invade Singapore ca. 8 February 1942 (Australian War Memorial 129751).
Both sides decided to do some spy work. After dark, the Australian 22nd Brigade sent three small patrols across the strait to Johor. The Japanese spotted one of the patrols, sinking its ship and killing the commander. The other patrols managed to gather valuable intelligence about Japanese troop concentrations. The Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Army, supported by Australian troops, sank and kill a Japanese patrol that was attempting to cross the Strait for similar purposes.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
The Battle for Singapore began on 8 February 1942, when the Japanese landed on the shores of Sarimbun Beach, Singapore.
The Australian troops reported their findings on 7 February 1942 to Malaya Command. They claimed to have spotted large enemy troop concentrations directly across the Strait from the northwestern shore of Singapore Island. This, they argued, suggested that the invasion would come in the northwest and required artillery bombardment of those positions. Malaya Command, however, ignored the reports because they did not jibe with expectations that the invasion would come in the northeast, not the northwest. Thus, the Japanese invasion preparations were allowed to proceed unmolested.

Battle of Singapore, 8 February 1942,
A map of the Battle of Sarimbun, the invasion of Singapore Island. Shown as blue circles are troops of the Australian 22nd Brigade, with the red arrows indicating Japanese landings. The Australian troops are positioned at the shoreline but are overwhelmed and retreating before 8 February 1942 is done.
As planned, the Japanese began hours of preliminary artillery bombardment artillery on 8 February 1942 and then commenced the invasion of the northwest section of Singapore Island. This took place at Lim Chu Kang beginning at 20:30. The Japanese troops of the 5th and 18th Divisions landed at Sarimbun Beach, which was defended by just three battalions the Australian 22nd Brigade. The Japanese gradually expanded their foothold after dark, eventually landing 4000 troops. By midnight, the Japanese invaders had total local ascendancy. The overwhelmed Australian units, separated by the rivers and swamps, already had lost communication with each other and were in full retreat.

Lowell Sun of 9 February 1942,
The Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun reports in its 9 February 1942 that the "Singapore Situation Is Well In Hand." To be fair, it is only relaying the reports being sent from Singapore by Australian commander General Gordon Bennett. Of course, the map just underneath the headline shows a Japanese invasion in progress, but that is just a pesky detail everything is well in hand.
The Japanese won the Battle of Sarimbun Beach on Singapore Island in the early morning hours of 9 February 1942. This forced the defending Australian soldiers of the 22nd Brigade back into the interior of the island. The three Australian battalions that had been defending this sector in northwest Singapore were overwhelmed as the Japanese continue pouring troops across the Strait. The Japanese quickly advanced out of their bridgehead and pursued the retreating Australians through several large estates. A fierce battle erupted around the abandoned Tengah Airfield, with the defending Australian troops losing hundreds of men killed and hundreds more wounded. After dark, the British sent three British Fairmile B motor launches on a dangerous raid through the Straits of Johor to disrupt the Japanese communications to the troops at Sarim. This small-scale attack succeeded beyond all expectations, destroying some landing craft and returning intact to base. However, the Japanese already had a firm grip on the northwest shore of Singapore Island.

Syracuse Herald-Journal, 9 February 1942
The 9 February 1942 Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald-Journal correctly and quickly reports that the Japanese have invaded Singapore Island.
Despite the successful invasion, General Percival remained convinced throughout the night that the Japanese invasion in the northwest was just a feint. He waited until mid-morning on the 9th to send reinforcements, and these consisted of only two half-strength battalions of the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade. Major-General Gordon Bennett, in command of the Australian troops, attempted to consolidate his forces at the Kranji-Jurong Switch Line east of Tengah Airfield - effectively ceding the airfield to the Japanese. The Japanese troops pressed on despite heavy casualties themselves. Their determination prevailed and the Australian defensive line held for only a few hours. This stage of the invasion was called the Battle of Kranji. At 23:00, the Japanese expanded the battlefield by landing troops just to the west of the causeway. Surprised, the Australian defenders there quickly retreated in an effort to secure the critical southern part of Singapore where the port facilities were located. As the day ended, the Japanese were in possession of the northern half of the island, including the island's high ground. The Allies' situation was chaotic but not yet completely lost.

Type 97 Japanese tank in Singapore, 10 February 1942
Japanese troops during the Battle of Bukit Timah, 10 February 1942. That is a Type 97 'Chi-Ha' medium tank.
On 10 February 1942, General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander in Chief ABDA, arrived by flying boat to review the situation. He ordered the island held, which the local generals did not consider very difficult. He also ordered all remaining RAF personnel to fly to bases in the Netherlands East Indies. While Wavell was there, the situation continued to deteriorate for the British. The Japanese began ferrying artillery and even armor to northwest Singapore. The 11th Indian Infantry Division (Major-General B. W. Key) made a desperate counterattack against Japanese troops which had seized the heights to the south of the Causeway, but this failed. General Percival ordered a secondary defensive line built behind the main defensive line around Jurong in the west, but in the heat of battle subordinate commanders misinterpreted this to mean a general withdrawal. This led to a complete collapse of the Kranji-Jurong Switch Line position, opening the door to further Japanese advances. General Wavell ordered Percival to launch a quick counterattack to re-establish the line, but through muddled communications and lack of ready troops, this counterattack did not take place before the Japanese launch further attacks in the sector.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
The Koneo Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army under lieutenant-general Nishimura crossing the Johor Causeway into Singapore after completing repairs, February 1942. (Image from National Archives of Singapore).
In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was becoming dismayed at the reports from Singapore. He cabled General Wavell:
I think you ought to realize the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the CIGS [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 [sic] men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula ... In these circumstances, the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle, they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.
While Churchill somewhat overstated the number of Allied troops in Singapore, he was generally correct that the British outnumbered the Japanese. However, the Japanese troops were battle-hardened, disciplined troops who could reflect upon a record of victories down the length of the Malay Peninsula. A large proportion of the British were service troops, bureaucrats, and unarmed troops (thanks to Japanese sinkings of supply ships). They also, of course, were victims of poor leadership and an extremely difficult defensive posture with many areas of vulnerability and little air support.

Map of fighting on Singapore, 11 February 1942
Detail of a map of fighting on Singapore on 11 February 1942. It shows the fighting flowing from west to east along Jurong Road. There is a Japanese attack at 03:00 west of Bukhit Timah (red at left). Later, Tomforce digs in east of the town later in the day (at the right).
In Singapore on 11 February 1942, things on the ground were only going from bad to worse for the Allies. The British command was confused and its troops overwhelmed as the Japanese advanced further into the center of Singapore Island. At 03:00, the Japanese 18th Division destroyed the Australian "X" battalion west of Bukit Timah and continued through the village. The Japanese 5th Division also took Bukit Panjang. The Australian 22nd Brigade, which has been fighting a harrowing rearguard action all the way from the beaches, now was virtually out of action due to massive losses.

Map of fighting on Singapore, 11 February 1942
Overall map of fighting on Singapore during 11 February 1942. The fighting around Bukhit Timah is in the lower center. 
Bukit Timah, now in Japanese hands, was desperately important to the British because it controlled the island's water supplies. "Tomforce" of the Australian 27th Brigade (Lt. Colonel L.C. Thomas) was ordered to retake Bukit Panjang as part of a phased counteroffensive to later retake Bukit Timah and the water reservoir. However, the 5th and 18th Japanese Imperial Infantry Divisions beat the Australian troops back with heavy losses. Tomforce, shattered, then adopted a defensive posture on either side of the Bukit Timah Road. At this point, though, with the Japanese in control of the water supply, defending where they stood was not enough for the British to hold the island for long.

San Bernardino, California, Sun, 11 February 1942
The San Bernardino, California, Daily Sun correctly predicts the future, 11 February 1942.
In the afternoon of 11 February, Japanese commander General Tomoyuki Yamashita issued another surrender demand. He asked the British to "give up this meaningless and desperate resistance." The British again did not reply. General Wavell ordered General Percival to fight to the end and not surrender. Percival's strategy now was reduced to forming a line around Singapore City itself at the eastern end of the island. British 15-inch artillery at Changi, on the island's east coast, turned 180 degrees and began firing at targets in the Bukit Timah area. However, their effectiveness was limited because their armor-piercing shells did little damage to dug-in enemy soldiers. For all intents and purposes, the battle for Singapore was lost on 11 February 1942.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
Indian troops arriving in Singapore, November 1941. Many of these troops would fight gallantly in defense of Singapore, and some would later defect to the Japanese. © IWM (FE 218).
The British on 12 February 1942 began establishing their last-ditch perimeter around Singapore City in the eastern end of the island. This required the withdrawal of forces in the line at Changi and from along the north shore. The defeated Australian 22nd Brigade temporarily held its position west of the Holland Road, but after dark pulled back to Holland Village.

Santa Cruz Sentinel-News, 13 February 1942
The Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel-News, 13 February 1942, puts "Singapore Holds" as its main headline.
The situation in Singapore became critical on 13 February 1942. The British now were defending a 28-mile perimeter around Singapore City in the eastern portion of Singapore Islanda At around 14:00, the Japanese 18th Division attacked the part of this line held by the Malay Regiment. This was the Battle of Pasir Panjang, and it went poorly for the British. The Japanese had tank and artillery support and immediately pushed part of the British regiment, B Company, back. This developed into hand-to-hand combat.

Malay Regiment practicing in October 1941
The Malay Regiment at bayonet practice, October 1941. They are a key part of British defenses around the city of Singapore on 13 February 1942. © IWM (FE 414).
The Malay unit was destroyed, and the Japanese captured or killed most of the men. With their flanks now exposed, the nearby sections of the line held by the 44th Indian Brigade and the 1st Malay Brigade were forced to retreat after dark. The new line was anchored at Mount Echo and Depot Road (Buona Vista). Meanwhile, the Japanese re-established the road over the causeway, dramatically improving their supply situation.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
Japanese bicycle troops advancing toward Singapore.
While it was no longer safe for large vessels to enter or exit Singapore Harbor, many people by now were fleeing the island on small watercraft. Japanese ships moved into position north of Bangka Island in an effort to block their exit. Among the fleeing ships was a launch carrying Rear-Admiral Spooner, Rear Admiral, Malaya, and Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, Air Officer Commanding, Far East. The Japanese ships forced their launch to go ashore on a tiny island north of Bangka Island. The crew eventually surrendered, but the two flag officers disappeared and were never seen again.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
The effects of a Japanese air raid on Singapore, 17 February 1942.Australian War Memorial 011601.
On 14 February 1942, the Japanese closed up on the 28-mile line that the British had drawn around Singapore City. The battle-hardened Japanese troops of the 5th Division pressured the northwest section of the line, while the 18th Division battled further to the south on the western portion of the perimeter. At 08:30, the Japanese attacked the sector held by the 1st Malay Brigade. The defenders held at first, but a second attack at 16:00 succeeded in pushing back the British left flank. About 150 British soldiers made a futile last stand at Pasir Panjang Ridge and perished. At this point, the entire British line begins to crumble.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
Children being evacuated from Singapore.
The inhabitants of Singapore knew that time was short and crowded into overloaded small vessels. Basically, anything that could float was loaded up with refugees and sent into the night. However, the Japanese actively interdicted these sailings with extreme prejudice. Japanese bombers sank 1670-ton SS Vyner Brooke off Banka Island, with only 65 of 300 aboard surviving. Many of those who perished were nurses and wounded servicemen. The 625-ton British river gunboat HMS Dragonfly (T11) was bombed and sunk off Singapore with 32 known crew deaths and an unknown number of passenger deaths. The Japanese took two crewmen as prisoners. There were many other small boats sunk in the area as well, such as converted whaler HMS Trang being used as a patrol boat and tug HMS St. Breock. How many people were lost in these tragedies is unknown because there no passenger manifests were kept in these desperate last hours.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
Japanese soldiers in Singapore after its fall.
It took until 14 February 1942 for British commands elsewhere to come to grips with the deteriorating situation in Singapore. While General Wavell ordered General Percival to fight on, for the first time he qualified this a bit. He wrote:
[It is] wrong to enforce needless slaughter... I give you discretion to cease resistance...Whatever happens, I thank you for gallant efforts of the last few days.
Regardless of what Percival wanted to do, his hands were effectively tied by the fact that the Japanese had captured the city's reservoirs. Brigadier Ivan Simson reported that the city only had enough water left for 48 hours. Percival bravely responded, "While there's water, we fight on." However, the end now was in sight.

Surrender of Singapore 15 February 1942
General Percival (right) leads the surrender parley on 15 February 1942 (Daily Mail).

The British Surrender Singapore

At about 19:00 local time on 15 February 1942, the British in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese 25th Army. The two sides agreed to suspend hostilities at 20:30. General Arthur Percival justified the surrender based on shortages of water, food, oil, and ammunition. According to contemporaneous estimates in London, approximately 55,000-60,000 British and Imperial Troops (including many Indian and Australian formations) went into captivity (more recent estimates are higher, at about 85,000). Many small ships remained in port and were lost to the Japanese, including 296-ton Siushan, 65-ton Mersing, and a requisitioned yacht, Silvia. The Japanese also came into possession of several larger ships, including 254-ton freighter Rhu. This began a long and oppressive Japanese occupation of Singapore.

Surrender of Singapore 15 February 1942
Putting a brave face on events in Singapore, the media notes the "desperate attempt to break the stern spirit of the defenders." The People, Sunday 15 February 1942.
Many feel (on 15 February 1942 and later) that Percival mishandled the defense and surrendered without having upheld the honor of the British Army. The British Army never forgave Percival. He was pointedly excluded from the final Japanese surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri on 2 September 1945 (even though US General Wainwright, the loser at Bataan, the Philippines, was given a position of honor). ABDA Commander General Wavell, however, in a classified report (only released in 1992), took a completely different view He blamed poor discipline among the defending Australian troops. Many observers placed the true blame on poor British Army and Navy strategy that emanates from Whitehall.

Surrender of Singapore 15 February 1942
General Yamashita at the surrender of the British garrison of Singapore on 15 February 1942.
For the Japanese, the capture of Singapore was one of the highlights of the war. On 16 February 1942, they hoisted their flag over the former British governor's residence in Singapore and renamed the city "Light of the South." The name change, however, was ignored by just about everyone. There were still naval actions offshore as the Japanese caught fleeing Allied ships, and, on the 16th, the Japanese used gunfire to sink Royal Navy ship HMS Pulo Soeti in the Banka Straits (55 dead, 25 survivors).

Surrender of Singapore 15 February 1942
The British surrender Singapore on 15 February 1942. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival the British commander, is the tall figure just behind the white flag surrounded by Japanese soldiers.
On 17 February 1942, the British Malaya Command officially surrendered as a formality. Japanese Major Iwaichi Fujiwara was given official command of the British Indian troops, and he immediately transferred the command to Mohan Singh, a member of the Indian Independence Movement. Singh, in turn, declared the formation of the Indian National Army (INA) under the command of Rash Behari Bose at the Farrer Park address and asks the approximately 40,000 Indian troops to join it in order to fight against the British Empire and (among other things) free India from British rule. About 30,000 of the Indian soldiers do, and some of them wind up serving as guards over their former British and Australian allies at Changi Prison.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tanks parading through Singapore, February 1942.
The loss of Singapore was felt around the world. In her "My Day" column of 17 February 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt, after gossiping blandly about apartment-hunting in New York City, suddenly changed direction and reflected upon the shock and fear engendered by the loss of Singapore:
Sunday afternoon the news of Singapore's capitulation came to a great many people as a tremendous shock. I had talked with the President and he said resignedly that, of course, we had expected it, but I know a great many people did not. Perhaps it is good for us to have to face disaster, because we have been so optimistic and almost arrogant in our expectation of constant success. Now we shall have to find within us the courage to meet defeat and fight right on to victory.
At this point, the Japanese appeared unstoppable. This encouraged some of their less disciplined troops to engage in predatory actions. The Japanese occupation of Singapore led to mass liquidations of local Chinese citizens by the Japanese in the Sook Ching Massacre. These massacres had repercussions for decades and their effect lingers on. The fall of Singapore may not have been the nadir of Allied military fortunes during World War II, but it was the emotional low point.

Fall of Singapore, February 1942
The interior of the Selarang Prisoner-of-War (POW) Camp, taken by an Australian POW, dating 1942. (Image from National Archives of Singapore).


Singapore was never as strong of a military bastion as British propaganda made it out to be. Instead, Singapore was a military backwater and treated as such. Second-rate commanders were sent to defend an inadequately fortified naval base which resembled a fortress only in the wistful dreams of slogan-writers. Unknown numbers of people perished both during the battle, as they attempted to flee, and afterward in mass executions because of faulty military planning and execution. The major lesson of the fall of Singapore in 1942 is that if you are going to call something a fortress, you had better actually make it a fortress or you will regret it.


Monday, October 14, 2019

Panzerfaust, A Valuable Anti-Tank Weapon

The Best Anti-Tank Weapon of World War II

A soldier carrying a Panzerfaust from the Hermann Göring Panzer Division, Russia, 1944 (Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0).
The Panzerfaust ("tank fist") was a late-war German hand-held anti-tank weapon. If there's one thing that you can say positive about the Wehrmacht, it was that it always supplied its ground troops with first-class weapons. From pistols to machine guns to grenades to semi-automatics, the German Army had the best in the business. The Panzerfaust was an outstanding addition to the German small arms which had an impact on the final year of the war. The Panzerfaust's main failing was that it did not come sooner, coming into widespread use only after the German armies were so run down that nothing could save them.

A German soldier in South Ukraine aiming a Panzerfaust at a Soviet position, December 1943/January 1944 (Gronefeld, Gerhard, Federal Archive Figure 101I-709-0337A-10A).

What Was the Panzerfaust?

The Panzerfaust was a cheap launching tube from which an individual soldier could fire a high-explosive charge over a moderate distance. It was the forerunner of rocket-propelled grenade launchers such as the Soviet RPG family of grenade launchers (most famously the RPG-2). The Panzerfaust was not the equivalent of the United States Army Bazooka which was developed around the same time. However, it is easy to get the two confused (even the official German Archive does), so let's take a brief look at the Panzerschreck to make the difference plain.

A German soldier aiming a Panzerschreck near Vitebsk, Russia, March 1944. Note that there is no shaped charge at the end of this weapon (Miner, Johannes, Federal Archive Picture 101I-279-0943-22A).
The Germans had their own equivalent to the Bazooka called the Panzerschreck ("Tank scare") which was a completely different weapon. German infantry generally used the Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck interchangeably, but the Panzerfaust was much more common (6.7 million Panzerfaust units built as opposed to 289,000 Panzerschrecks). Tests showed that the Panzerfaust also created a bigger entry hole due to its larger warhead and the unique shape of the charge.  You were much more likely to be equipped with a Panzerfaust than a Panzerschreck, and the Germans spent much more time developing and refining the Panzerfaust than the Panzerschreck, which at heart was just a cheap copy of the Bazooka. The Panzerfaust in the opinion of many (but not everybody) was simply a better weapon than the Panzerschreck or the Bazooka.

A German soldier in South Ukraine training with a Panzerfaust (Gronefeld, Gerhard, Federal Archive Picture 101I-710-0371-19). 

How Was the Panzerfaust Developed?

Contrary to common belief, the Panzerfaust was not a late-war expedient conjured up with little thought. It also did not fire rockets. HASAG Hugo Schneider AG, Werk Schlieben, began work on the concept during the summer of 1942 when things were still going well for the Wehrmacht. Dr. Heinrich Langweiler led a team in Leipzig which came up with the Faustpatrone ("fist cartridge"), which was a recoilless gun. The Faustpatrone was basically just a test of the concept and was considered too small to be very useful in the field, but HASAG delivered 500 of them by August 1943. They were used mostly for training.

A German soldier at the Luftwaffe military officer training center holding a Faustpatrone in 1944. (Hoepner, Federal Archive Picture 101I-672-7634-03).
Virtually concurrently with its development of the Faustpatrone, HASAG began developing another model under the name Panzerfaust. The main difference was simply that the Panzerfaust was bigger. Whereas the Faustpatrone had a metal launch tube with a length of 80 cm (31½ in) and a diameter of 3.3 cm (1.3 in), the Panzerfaust 30 tube was 104.5 centimeters (3.4 ft) and 44 millimeters (1.7 in) in diameter. The Faustpatrone warhead was 400 g (14 oz) of a 50:50 mix of TNT and tri-hexogen, while the Panzerfaust 30 warhead was 2.9 kilograms (6.4 lb) and contained 0.8 kilograms (1.8 lb) of a 50:50 mixture of TNT and hexogen explosives. Obviously, given these differences, the Panzerfaust offered the soldier more firepower. This was critically important because both weapons were only effective at about 30 meters. If you were going to get that close to a tank, you had better make have success with your first shot or you were unlikely to get a chance for a second.

A Panzerfaust being tested. Note the huge arc of the trajectory - these weapons required some practice to use properly.
Development of the Panzerfaust continued until the closing days of the European Theater of Operations. Based on feedback from soldiers, engineers lengthened the weapon and added a crude site to aid with aiming, increased the weapon's range. They also added a shield on later models, but those were more common on Panzerschrecks. All of these enhancements added to the Panzerfaust's effectiveness.

Finnish soldiers aim their Panzerfausts at Soviet armor during the Battle of Tali-lhantala, June 30, 1944. 

When Was the Panzerfaust Used?

The Panzerfaust was only produced during World War II. There was some limited use of these weapons after the war. The first production units of the Panzerfaust began arriving in August 1943, virtually at the same time as the Faustpatrone. Initial reports from the field were good. It was light and disposable, with the tube made of cheap steel, so the troops were willing to carry it into battle and fire it. However, there were a couple of complaints. The most important one was that it was difficult to aim (a particular fault of the Faustpatrone). Dr. Langweiler's team solved that by lengthening the tube and adding a sight. The second problem was a little more difficult to solve. Getting to within 30 meters of enemy tanks was not that difficult, but getting away alive was. From this point on, development focused on extending the weapon's range. This was done successfully and efficiently, but the development ate up time that the Wehrmacht no longer had.


There were a few instances of Panzerfausts being used after World War II. The Polish People's Army used captured Panzerfausts beginning in 1949, designating them PG-49. The Poles liked the weapon so much that they made their own knockoff of the Panzerfaust 100 in 1951-52 designated as Pc-100. The Soviets based their famous postwar RPG-2 in part on the Panzerfaust. There were reports of Panzerfausts being used in Afghanistan as late as 2006-2010, and there may still be some in the hands of irregular forces ready to be used.

An experienced German First Lieutenant (note his Tank Destruction Badge) demonstrating the Panzerfaust to an audience in Italy, April/May 1944 (Federal Archive Figure 101I-313-1005-04A).

Who Used the Panzerfaust?

The Panzerfaust was developed by German engineers for use by the German Wehrmacht. However, they were not the only ones that used it. The Reich gave the Panzerfaust to its allies which were also helping to defend the frontier. These included the Italian Social Republic (RSI), Bulgaria, Romania, and the Government of National Unity (Hungary). During mid-1944, Adolf Hitler and General Keitel managed to convince Finland to remain in the war for a couple of months with the promise of aid that included a large batch of Panzerfausts. Thus, the Panzerfaust helped to achieve strategic war aims of the Third Reich, even if the effects were only temporary (Finland defected in September 1944, taking its remaining Panzerfausts with it).

A Finnish soldier with a Panzerfaust. This photo was taken on June 30, 1944 (SA-Kuva).
The Czech resistance used captured Panzerfausts during the Prague uprising of May 1945, which lasted until 9 May 1945.

The Germans gave the Empire of Japan plans and specifications for the Panzerfaust. The Japanese, however, went against the trend and preferred the design of the American Bazooka. The Japanese Type 4 was based on captured Bazookas found at Leyte.


Was the Panzerfaust an Effective Weapon?

The Panzerfaust was very effective, but like all weapons, it was more effective in some situations more than others. Given its limited range, the Panzerfaust was least effective in open settings such as beaches and fields. It was very dangerous to sneak up on an enemy tank in places where there was little cover.


There are two well-documented examples of the Panzerfaust's lesser effectiveness outside of urban areas. First, the Finns, who received a large batch of Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks in mid-1944, did not particularly like the weapon. This was likely due to the more rural nature of military actions in Finland as opposed to urban combat. Part of the problem may have been lack of training, as Finnish soldiers rightly felt that they had done pretty well with the weapons they already had and did not need to adapt to using a new weapon. The Finns preferred the Panzerschreck and adapted that into their own postwar 55 S 55 weapon.

Finnish soldiers are being taught how to use Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck. This photo was taken in by Military Official J.M Wuorela in Syskyjärvi in July of 1944. (SA-Kuva photo archive, photo number 156315).
Second, the Panzerfaust did not make much impact in the Battle of Normandy, particularly during the lodgement phase on the beaches. However, the Allied troops certainly noticed the danger of Panzerfausts and became very careful about following an all-arms strategy where tanks did not advance without strong infantry support to keep German soldiers away from the tanks.

Panzerfausts  in Budapest, October 1944,
German soldiers in Budapest armed with sub-machine guns and Panzerfausts as the Red Army approaches in October 1944 (Faupel, Federal Archive Picture 101I-680-8282A-19A).
In urban settings, though, the Panzerfaust was extremely effective. A soldier could fire his Panzerfaust from a second-story window, for instance, and disable a passing tank and then retreat quickly without fear of being captured or shot. This dovetailed nicely with the German situation in late 1944 and 1945 when the Wehrmacht strategy centered around urban strongpoints ("fortresses") and the battlefield changed from eastern forests and fields to built-up areas. German forces held out far longer than they otherwise would have in some cities such as Budapest because they had access to Panzerfausts. In fact, Panzerfausts were considered so critical in Budapest that they continued to be made during the siege itself at the Hungarian Manfred Weiss Steel and Metal Works, located on Csepel Island (much as the defenders of Leningrad continued to make their own tanks during that siege).

A camouflaged German paratrooper carrying his Panzerfaust, France, Jun-Jul 1944 (Thönessen (nn), Federal Archive Bild 101I-586-2221-14).
The Panzerfaust 30 was just the beginning of a family of weapons. Later models of the Panzerfaust increased its effectiveness. Development continued until the end of the war primarily to increase the Panzerfaust's range. The numbers following the name indicate the range of each weapon in meters:
  • Panzerfaust 30 (Klein) introduced August 1943
  • Panzerfaust 30 introduced August 1943
  • Panzerfaust 60 introduced Summer 1944
  • Panzerfaust 100 introduced November 1944
  • Panzerfaust 150 introduced in small numbers in March 1945
The last Panzerfaust to make a difference in combat was the Panzerfaust 100, which was finalized in September 1944 and began to reach units that November. The Panzerfaust 60 was the most produced version, reaching production levels of 400,000 by September 1944. Actual useful ranges in combat conditions were likely somewhat shorter than the published ranges. A Panzerfaust 250, which, besides having an extended range would have been reloadable, was in development when the war ended and was not completed.

While this is from a postwar motion picture, it shows how Panzerfausts were used. Note that the soldier is standing in full of the tank crew, which is unrealistic. 
In addition, the Panzerfaust was effective because it was readily available. Unlike most other German weapons, there was no scarcity of Panzerfausts. The Reich economy was floundering by mid-1944, but that did not impact Panzerfaust production. The weapon was cheap to make and did not rely on rare materials. Both the firing tube and the warhead could be built by whatever cheap metal was available.

Panzerfausts used by the Grossdeutschland Division, East Prussia, October 1944,
Members of the Grossdeutschland Division, East Prussia, October 1944, carrying their Panzerfausts. In the background is an armored personnel carrier. They are in Memel and advancing to counterattack Soviet troops (Otto, Albrecht Heinrich, Federal Archive Picture 146-1995-081-31A).
German tactical doctrine developed to increase the effectiveness of the Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust. As with every weapon, the Panzerfaust's effectiveness increased when used in certain proven ways. The Wehrmacht directed that separate Panzerfaust teams be sited in staggered trenches within 115 meters of each other. This assured that advancing enemy tanks would coming into their range sometimes from multiple angles but in all cases at a distance no greater than 69 meters. These tactics required some training which often was not given to raw recruits, leading some soldiers to be disappointed by the Panzerfaust.

German soldiers at a training demonstration of the Panzerfaust in France, Spring 1944 (Rogue, Federal Archive Picture 101I-264-1623-30). 
There was a problem with the use of the Panzerfaust, but it was unrelated to the weapon itself. The Panzerfaust was a deceptively simple weapon to use - just point and press a lever and you were done. It became a "panacea" weapon late in the war and its capabilities were oversold. When the Reich began raising Volkssturm units late in the war, the new recruits received little training and often went into battle in their street clothes topped off perhaps their old War War I caps.

Volkssturms using Panzerfausts,
This photo was taken on 10 March 1945, the day that Berlin was declared a "Defense Area." Note the barricades in the background in front of a railway bridge. In the foreground are three Volkssturm soldiers holding their only weapons - Panzerfausts - and wearing their "uniforms." (Scherl Agency, Federal Archive Figure 183-J31320).
It became almost a joke that these new overage Volkssturm soldiers were issued nothing but a Panzerfaust with a single warhead and told to go destroy an enemy tank. German officials sarcastically commented that once fired, the tube could be used as a club. These patriotic men marching off to war with their Panzerfausts made for good propaganda photos, but firing a Panzerfaust required some training. Their trajectory was like a softball pitch with a huge arc. In addition, getting into a position to use a Panzerfaust effectively required a large dollop of skill, dedication, and bravery. Without these crucial ingredients, the Panzerfaust was virtually worthless. An unenthusiastic recruit could fire his single warhead from too far away or at a worthless target and then his hands were clean - he could walk away without blame or shame. Thus, the Panzerfaust was effective only when given to properly trained and motivated soldiers, which were in increasingly short supply as the calendar moved forward.

A German NCO in France or Belgium holding a Panzerfaust. Note that his uniform sleeve sports a Silver Tank Destruction Badge, indicating that he has personally knocked out an enemy tank (colorized, Ash Bridge, Federal Archive Figure 101I-300-1897-10A).

What did Soldiers Think of the Panzerfaust?

In general, soldiers liked the Panzerfaust and used them gladly. That the soldiers liked the Panzerfaust is more important than you might think - a lot of new weapons fail when the common soldier won't use them. Panzerfausts were easy to aim and fire and could be thrown away once used. One of the most prestigious German military decorations was the Tank Destruction Badge (German: Sonderabzeichen für das Niederkämpfen von Panzerkampfwagen durch Einzelkämpfer). You earned this badge by single-handedly destroying an enemy tank or an armored combat vehicle using a hand-held weapon. Established on 9 March 1942, this badge was prominently displayed on a soldier's uniform sleeve. There were two classes of this badge, a silver class for destroying a single tank and a gold badge (established 18 December 1943) for destroying five tanks. One Wehrmacht soldier,  Günther Viezenz, gained renown by destroying 21 enemy tanks, so he wore four gold badges and one silver badge. The Panzerfaust made these highly coveted badges easier to earn.

Panzerfaust used by US GIs,
A US GI of the 2nd Armored Division prepared to use his captured Panzerfaust (colorized). 
The best compliment paid to the Panzerfaust, however, was by Allied soldiers. They captured some Panzerfausts during the Sicilian campaign where they were first used and liked them. Other GIs also used the captured Panzerfausts that they came across. General John Gavin of the 82nd Airborne mentioned this in his classic 'On to Berlin" (1978):
I visited [Commander of the 504th PIR Rubin] Tucker to see how he was getting along in his defensive role [at Nijmegen, Holland, during Operation Market Garden]. He and his regiment were in fine form. They had captured a truck load of panzerfausts with training instructions in German which they had translated. They were the best antitank weapons we had for the remainder of the war.
Seriously, that is the best compliment any weapon can receive.

Captured Panzerfaust,
Private William J. Hendrick, Co C 2nd Combat Engineers, 2nd Div, First U.S. Army, shows off a cache of Panzerfausts left by retreating Germans, 16 March 1945, Bad Neuenahr, Germany
As Gavin indicated, GIs often preferred them to the Bazooka and occasionally even went into battle with them (such as British paratroopers during Operation Market Garden in September 1944). The US Army's 82nd Airborne Division used captured Panzerfausts from their first capture in the Sicilian Campaign (Operation Husky) to the end of the war. The Soviet Union did not use them as much, but Marshall Georgiy Zhukov officially recommended their use in a directive published during February 1945.

Two Luftwaffe ground troops with their Panzerfausts in Normandy, September 1944 (Hoess, Federal Archive Picture 101I-680-8254-08A).


The Panzerfaust was an extremely effective weapon in a nation dealing with a struggling economy. It was a cheap weapon to make, proved effective when used properly, and was easy to use. The Panzerfaust proved most useful in the urban settings that characterized the final months of World War II. The Panzerfaust's main drawbacks were that it required training and had a limited range which exposed its user to great danger. Both of these limitations could be addressed, and to some extent were, but the war situation made them impossible for Germany to overcome completely. Overall, the Panzerfaust was a useful weapon, proving its value many times over and well worth the investment.

A female Volkssturm recruit learning to use a Panzerfaust, March 1945 (Federal Archive Picture 146-1973-001-30).