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).|
|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).|
|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).|
|A Panzerfaust being tested. Note the huge arc of the trajectory - these weapons required some practice to use properly.|
|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 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).|
|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).|
|A camouflaged German paratrooper carrying his Panzerfaust, France, Jun-Jul 1944 (Thönessen (nn), Federal Archive Bild 101I-586-2221-14).|
- Panzerfaust 30 introduced August 1943
- Panzerfaust 60 introduced Summer 1944
- Panzerfaust 100 introduced November 1944
|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.|
|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 soldiers at a training demonstration of the Panzerfaust in France, Spring 1944 (Rogue, Federal Archive Picture 101I-264-1623-30).|
|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).|
|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.
|A US GI of the 2nd Armored Division prepared to use his captured Panzerfaust (colorized).|
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.
|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|
|Two Luftwaffe ground troops with their Panzerfausts in Normandy, September 1944 (Hoess, Federal Archive Picture 101I-680-8254-08A).|
ConclusionThe 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).|