Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bazooka: ‘Magnificent Weapon’ or a ‘Crapshoot Fielded Too Soon’?

Quoting Dan Ward:
In World War II, the Bazooka went from drawing board to battlefield, in quantities of thousands, in a stunning 30 days. Each weapon cost $19 and put an unprecedented amount of firepower into the hands of allied infantrymen. In fact, a contemporary commentator compared the Bazooka's effect to the 155mm howitzer, which cost $25,000 each. Gen Eisenhower went even further, listing the Bazooka as "one of the four weapons that won WWII for the allies." Not bad for $19 each.

Separating Legend from History: Creating and Fielding the Bazooka

I suspect the Bazooka made Wards ‘Magnificent 7’ list because it (as presented), tends to fit his Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, and Tiny (FIST) narrative…and he’s used it before (with a little more detail and with an equally error-ridden description of the M-16’s development, but we won’t go debunking that here). From his ‘Radical Elements of Radical Success’ on ‘Developing the Bazooka’:
Early in World War II, the U.S. Army contracted with GE to create a hand-held rocket launcher. GE had a mere 30 days to deliver several thousand units. Today we know the weapon as the Bazooka, and its introduction gave American infantry the unprecedented ability to fight against German tanks. This new weapon changed the battlefield significantly, and contributed to the eventual Allied victory. The story of its development is an intriguing example of the Radical Elements in action. First the idea of a new, powerful weapon being not only designed, but also built, tested, mass produced and delivered to the field in 30 days was unheard of and entirely without precedent. Today, such an endeavor takes years, if not decades. For example, the development of the M-16 rifle began in 1948, when initial research was conducted at Johns Hopkins University. Field tests began in 1958, although the rifle was not yet fully developed. The weapon was issued to combat troops for the first time in 1968 – twenty years after initial research. In contrast, the bazooka went from the drawing board to the front line (in mass quantities) in less than 30 days.
 Other gems from the same narrative:
Once the bazooka was designed (in a single day) and production began, “the workers refused to admit the deadline was impossible.”  
The first test gun was made in four days – another “impossible” feat.
“…that 24 hour design session could only be pulled off by a talented Monomaniac who was able to focus with enthusiasm on this secret weapon. That individual was James L. Powers, a GE engineer.”
While the people at GE did rise to a great challenge worthy of our note and praise, it wasn’t of the magnitude which Ward’s effusive claims greatly overstate. Why? Because what the GE engineer did was to finalize the detailed design of a relatively simple prototype weapon system to make it suitable for mass production. A prototype weapon system that, by the way, had already been conceptualized using elements that had gestated over a significant period of time prior to turning it over to GE, and one that most of the elements thereof had been fundamentally integrated and demonstrated prior to GE ever becoming involved. From A History of Innovation: U.S. Army Adaptation in War and Peace’: 
In 1938 the Army transferred Skinner to Hawaii, but he returned two years later at the instigation of Dr. Hickman, now a member of the National Defense Research Committee. Hickman arranged for Skinner to report to the U.S. Navy Powder Factory at Indian Head, Maryland, where he was to establish an Army Special Projects Unit and continue his rocket work. Skinner soon gained an assistant, Lieutenant Uhl, a recent graduate of Lehigh University with a thorough grounding in physics and engineering.  
Despite Hickman’s high interest, the Army rocket program remained a relatively low priority with a miniscule [sic] budget. Uhl, for example, would first search the Powder Factory’s scrap heap whenever he needed some metal. The nearby Potomac River served as a test firing range. Skinner frequently asked his Navy counterparts for assistance, repaying them by working on sister service projects that included rocket-guided bombs and jet assisted takeoff.  
While Skinner devoted his attention to aircraft and artillery launched rockets, Uhl worked on an antitank design. An Ordnance Department civilian, Gregory J. Kessenich, tipped off the rocket section to the potential of a new type of explosives technology perfected by Swiss engineer Henri H. Mohaupt. In late 1940 Mohaupt had offered the U.S. Army a shaped-charge projectile.  
The hollow cone molded into the front of the explosive charge focused much of the blast into a hot jet that could burn a hole through armor. Unlike existing antitank rounds, which depended on speed and mass to create the energy to penetrate, Mohaupt’s shaped charge would work even when it made contact with the target at a relatively slow speed. Thus the warhead could be fired from smaller, less powerful weapons, making it perfect for use by foot soldiers.  
The Ordnance Department had acquired and tested Mohaupt’s 30-mm. shaped-charge rifle grenade and found it capable of penetrating 2 inches of hardened steel. Work frantically began on a 60-mm. design after the Army received a report from the British that the Germans were increasing the thickness of the armor plate on their panzers to 4 inches. Standardized as the M10 grenade, the 60-mm. version was up to the new challenge, but it had gained a major flaw. The charge required to launch this heavier projectile a sufficient distance produced a great deal more recoil. Because the butt of the M1 Garand rifle had to be placed on the ground to gain elevation and range, the wooden stock absorbed the shock and often broke in the process.  
In a search for something capable of launching the M10, the Army turned to a concept dubbed the spigot mortar. This notional weapon was basically a solid rod with a trigger mechanism located at the base. The projectile consisted of the shaped-charge grenade attached to a length of hollow tube that fit down over the mortar’s rod. Pressing the trigger activated a firing pin located at the tip of the rod, which in turn ignited a propellant charge in the base of the grenade. The expanding gasses from the burning propellant thrust the projectile off the rod, with the tube imparting initial guidance. Similar to a traditional mortar, the recoil would be absorbed into the ground on which the weapon rested.  
The advantages of the spigot mortar were several. It was small, light, easy to operate, simple to manufacture, and cheap. While the first three factors made it attractive to an infantryman, all of them were important to ordnance designers given that the Army wanted to field large numbers of the man-portable antitank system in a very short period of time. The only obvious drawback to the system was its relatively short range. The Ordnance Department asked several private firms to each develop a working spigot mortar capable of firing the 60-mm. shaped-charge grenade.  
The Army planned to test the prototypes in a competitive shoot off at Aberdeen in early summer 1942.  
While others sought ways to effectively employ the 60-mm.grenade, Uhl focused on marrying the round to a rocket that would get it to the target. By February 1942 he had successfully assembled a prototype antitank rocket by adding propellant, a gas trap, an igniter, and stabilizing fins to an inert M10 grenade. Firing tests conducted at the end of the dock that projected into the Potomac revealed that the new design had the desired range and ballistic properties. The next step was to construct a portable launcher. The main component came from an unexpected source. While rummaging through the scrap pile behind his workshop, Uhl came upon a 5-foot length of metal pipe that proved just wide enough to accept a 60-mm. round. Upon inspecting Uhl’s discovery, Skinner remarked that he had a spare rifle stock at home that could be fitted to the underside of the tube. He also suggested Uhl add a pair of grips to make it even easier to handle. The pair decided to use a trigger-activated electric igniter that sent a charge through a wire to the base of the rocket. Once these features were added to the design, all that remained was to conduct a live-fire test to see if everything worked.  
Uhl received the mission to fire the first rocket. Wearing a welder’s mask and gloves, he walked to the end of the pier. A small group of observers, including Skinner and Hickman, watched from the shore. After ensuring no watercraft were nearby, Uhl pointed the tube toward the middle of the river and pressed the trigger. When it fired, he heard only a whooshing noise and felt absolutely no recoil. He discovered that the rocket did not generate enough exhaust to justify wearing any protective equipment.  
Based on this success, Uhl assembled enough inert rockets to conduct more extensive testing. Skinner decided that the combination of rocket and launcher should be tested at Aberdeen during the spigot mortar shoot off in May. On the morning of the scheduled test, Uhl and Skinner arrived at the range before anyone else. Spotting a tank in the impact area, Uhl walked over to talk to the driver who confirmed that his vehicle was indeed the target for the pending competition. The soldier also explained that he was to navigate a specific course, which he pointed out to Uhl, and that he was to do so at a speed of twenty-five miles per hour. Uhl paced off the distance back to the firing line. After scribbling some figures down on a matchbook, he concluded he had to aim one tank length in front of the vehicle and slightly above the top of the turret to obtain a hit on a moving target at that range. The crews of the spigot mortars arrived and began assembling their weapons. Uhl and Skinner occupied a sixth firing point about fifty yards to one side. A group from Army Ground Forces headquarters, headed by a lieutenant general, appeared soon afterwards. The officers were accompanied by Brig. Gen. Gladeon M. Barnes, head of the Ordnance Department Research and Development Section. The test began with a signal from Barnes to the tank crew.  
As the vehicle moved back and forth, the spigot mortars took turns firing dummy rounds at the target. It quickly became apparent that the high trajectory of the projectiles—required for maximizing range, given the low propellant charge—made the weapon highly inaccurate, especially against a moving target. Each mortar missed when its turn came, producing audible groans from onlookers. Just before the competition began, Uhl and Skinner had realized their rocket launcher lacked a sighting mechanism. Uhl extracted a wire coat hangar[sic] and pliers from the trunk of his automobile.  
The young lieutenant constructed a front sight, featuring an upright blade, and a circular rear sight, in which the firer centered the front blade. Using a telephone pole as a reference point, Skinner looked down the length of the empty firing tube to ensure it remained centered on the pole as Uhl bent two sections of a coat hanger around the tube. This final modification to the launcher was completed before the spigot mortars had finished firing.  
After the fifth prototype missed, Uhl took aim at the moving tank and pulled the trigger. A rocket whooshed downrange to score a direct hit. The officers sitting on the bleachers cheered and threw their hats in the air. The Army Ground Forces three-star approached Skinner to ask if he could test fire the launcher. Uhl relinquished it to the general, explaining the trigger mechanism and sighting procedures as the senior officer prepared to fire at the tank. The general scored a direct hit. Barnes now took a turn and was also successful. Others test fired the weapon with only one rocket missing the target.  
When all the projectiles were expended, Barnes stepped forward once more to closely examine the launch tube. He casually remarked to Skinner: “This sure looks just like Bob Burns’ bazooka.” Burns was a famous radio comedian whose publicity photos often depicted him playing a cobbled-together musical instrument he called “The Bazooka.” Although the Army would formally designate the weapon the 2.36-inch rocket launcher M1, the nickname coined by Barnes would stick.  
Things began moving quickly as development of the bazooka continued. A week later General Marshall and members of the Soviet and British military delegations witnessed a second demonstration held at Camp Simms in Washington D.C. The Soviets were so impressed that they asked Marshall to supply them with bazookas immediately even though the weapon was still being improved. Marshall issued verbal orders that 5,000 of the rocket launchers, along with necessary quantities of rockets and practice ammunition, be produced for lend-lease purposes within a month. The General Electric plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, learned on 20 May that it had to build the weapons as soon as possible. The company completed the initial batch of bazookas by 24 June and shipped them to the Soviet Union shortly afterwards.
Quite a contrast in accounts there isn’t it? While the real timeline wasn’t anywhere near ‘30 days’, and the weapons delivered didn’t initially go to “the front line” (unless the Soviets wanted to use the practice rounds in a real battle with the Germans), the ‘birth of the bazooka’ is still a remarkable story.

The reader should have also found something remarkable in what is missing in both accounts; something that I would ask they keep in mind as we continue our review. Notice how the tests to the bazooka system tested the basic functionality of all the parts prior to production – except shaped-charge effectiveness when fired from a bazooka tube at actual armor? Of all the elements in the system, the warhead design was the most ‘advanced’ and yet the least proven or integrated of the technologies involved prior to production.

Separating Legend from History: Bazooka Effectiveness

Let’s begin by making two observations concerning General Eisenhower (Since LtCol Dan brought him up) . First, he wasn’t always in a position to be the best informed when it came to how well anti-tank weapons were performing (ANTI-ARMOR DEFENSE DATA STUDY, Volume Four):
During the bitter fighting in the bocage (hedgerows) after the Normandy landings, it became clear that American antitank weapons were not living up to expectations when facing Panthers and Tigers. To determine exactly how serious the problem was, the First U.S. Army conducted firing tests in July 1944. In conducting the test, First Army used every weapon in its inventory with an AP capability against two captured Panthers (no Tigers were available).  
The results of the test were appalling. None of the American antitank weapons could penetrate the front of the Panther's hull. Only the 3-inch gun stood a chance against the Panther's turret mantle, but at less than 200 yards. However, all the weapons fired could penetrate the sides and rear.  
Just two weapons, the 105 howitzer (using HEAT) and the 90mm antiaircraft gun could pierce the front of the hull. Had a Tiger been available, the results of the frontal tests would have been similar, but its thicker side armor would have defeated most of the smaller weapons. The heavier Tiger II, or "Royal Tiger' had even thicker armor, and its front was impervious to all U.S. antitank weapons until hyper-velocity (HVAP) ammunition became available for the 90mm in 1945. Shocked by the results of the July test, General Eisenhower commented angrily:
Why is it that I am always the last to hear about this stuff: Ordnance told me this 76  would take care of anything the German had. Now I find out you can't knock out a damn thing with it.
Second, perhaps his apparent fondness for the Bazooka is due to the fact that it wasn’t as ineffective as the ‘76’, but that doesn’t mean the Bazooka was sufficient by a long stretch. If we’re going to use ‘General‘opinion as a grading method, I am more inclined to rely upon the observations of ‘fighting generals’ in making this judgment call:
  • In the Sicilian campaign, the U.S. Army's Lt. General James Gavin was to later observe 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. (HISTORY OF THE SHAPED CHARGE EFFECT: The First 100 Years)  
  • [Then LtGen] Patton expressed his thoughts regarding the bazooka in a letter of instruction to his senior commanders on May 20,1944: The purpose of the bazooka is not to hunt tanks offensively, but to be used as the last resort in keeping tanks from overrunning infantry. Since the bazooka is unarmored, and always discloses its position when fired, it must get a hit on the first shot. To insure this, the range should be held to about 30 yards. When thus used, the bazooka will hit and penetrate any tank I have yet seen and will probably stop it. If used at longer ranges, it will probably miss and its operators will then become targets for the tanks machine guns.”(Weapons of Patton’s Armies, Pg. 39) 
If anecdotal opinions ‘proved’ anything on their own, I would also perhaps give more weight to the opinion of a then-company commander and later General Allen Burdett (Sr):
  • He felt very fortunate in having the top bazooka man in the Division in his company. The bazooka, for you younger folks, was a shoulder-fired unguided anti-tank rocket with a shaped-charge warhead. The corporal had uncanny skills and had an almost unbelievable record of hitting a variety of targets under all kinds of conditions on the test range. One day, Allen was leading a small scouting party to probe some territory ahead of him. As was always the case in such operations, his bazooka man was at his side to provide firepower and that feeling of security that went with it. All of a sudden, a German tank came around the side of a grove of trees in the meadow. The corporal let go, missed the tank badly, but hit a large Holstein. The weapon had a PK of 1.0 in combat all right, but the K stood for Kow.
But while all these (pro and con) anecdotes are entertaining, by themselves they mean absolutely…..nothing. The last quote was actually lifted from a ‘pro-reform’ IEEE Proceedings paper titled “The Never-Never Land of Defense Analysis” (Subscription or fee required) lamenting contrasts between testing and real world performance (which I find more relevant to pre-80’s test designs, and a rationale used by malefactors to create another level of test bureaucracy –a burden that IMHO often tends to outweigh the knowledge gained because it fosters “paralysis from analysis” via having more second-guessers in on the fun).

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.

Update 17 June: Corrected Blogger formatting issues and copy-paste errors. may add illustrations where appropriate later today. And I added a picture: people like pictures for some reason.


Don M said...

Great article.

Keep in mind that in the 30s, the preeminent antitank weapon of the US was the 37mm cannon and the .50 caliber M-2 machine gun. The 37mm cannon was the same design as that mounted on the German Pzkw III, and that used by Polish cavalry against the Germans in 1939.

Germans had independently invented shaped charges, but reserved them for combat engineers, placing them by hand against Belgian fortifications in 1940.

US antitank defense was dominated by General Leslie McNair, and he correctly thought that the best answer was highly mobile large caliber guns. That line of thinking led to independent Tank Destroyer groups and battalions with the 75mm howitzer mounted on halftracks, as well as the M-10 Tank Destroyer with 3 inch gun, the M-18 Hornet TD with 76mm gun, and the M-36 (and M-36bis 2) TD with 90mm guns. Those were supplemented with towed 57mm guns. Infantry was provided with instructions on how to place grenades down open hatches, how to use ropes to pull mines on sleds in front of tank tracks, and how to throw bottles of gasoline onto the vehicle aft deck, all of which are more likely to get the infantryman hurt than to kill a tank.

That was the state when the Bazooka was invented. It was a great advance, but insufficiently developed as you correctly point out. It was so good that when captured, the Germans turned it into two weapons. The Russians eventually copied it as the RPG, now seen around the world.

SMSgt Mac said...

Thanks Don! I'm looking for an opportunity to revisit this subject and am planning to use your observations concerning your Fulda Gap days.