|German officers examining British tanks knocked out during the Battle of Cambrai. Near Bourlon, 1917|
Anti-Tank Weapons in the First World War
Martin Andrew 29 May 2016
The paper looks at the British and German anti-tank measures and equipment by the soldiers in the trenches and their supporting artillery to defend themselves against tank attacks.
British anti-tank tactics were laid out in Instructions for Anti-Tank Defence, dated February 1918, two months before the A7V appeared. Defence in depth utilising artillery, infantry, machine guns, Royal Flying Corps, tanks and obstacles were the means in order by which tanks were meant to be destroyed with artillery using high explosive (HE) shells the primary means.
By the end of the war the British and empire Armies had a considerable variety of anti-tank weapons but were by this stage on the offensive and such defensive systems were not needed.
18 and 13 pounder (pdr) field guns were placed forward to directly engage tanks but care had be taken to ensure their presence was hidden and not near important features, so they were protected against the preliminary bombardment that accompanied attacks. 18pdr field gun batteries, were to engage the infantry accompanying the tanks as were machine guns. If need be the 18pdr field guns on either flank could be moved into an anti-tank position to engage tanks with high explosive shells like British tank crews said the Germans 77mm field guns did with considerable success.
|Australian 18pdr in the anti-tank role April 1918|
The 60pdr medium artillery batteries were to ‘be prepared to engage tanks approaching their position, and even occasionally having one sited for anti-tank defence the anti-tank pamphlet noting rather dryly that the ‘heavy shell of these guns being particularly effective against such targets’.
|60pdr medium gun in action 1916|
The British Army having developed the tank looked at ways of defeating it, knowing that eventually they would be on the receiving end. The case of the rimmed .600 Nitro cartridge, then the most powerful sporting cartridge in use, was lengthened and necked down to .500 and loaded with commercial projectiles for experimental purposes and the case was always intended to be replaced.
Designated the .600/500 and it was developed for a rifle known as the Godsal. Built by Webley and Scott, the rifle fired a .500-inch calibre 37g soft nose commercial projectile at a muzzle velocity of 808m/sec. The rifle weighed 8kg without the recoil reducer and 8.7kg with the recoil reducer and muzzle brake and used a Mauser type body and wooden pistol grip and butt with a very short for end. With the Armistice interest in an anti-tank rifle stopped but the RAF still had continued interest in it for aircraft use, and towards the end of 1918 a belted rimless case was developed. Designated the Cartridge SA .500 inch SA Ball’, it held a 37g armour piercing (AP) projectile and after the war various AP projectiles between 31.1 and 39.8 grams were trialed.
Anti-Tank Rifle Grenades
The British Army in 1918 faced the German A-7V and captured Mark IV tanks and the infantry required a weapon to defeat them with. This was the ‘Grenade, Rifle No. 44 A.T. (anti-tank)’ introduced into service in April 1918 becoming the first infantry anti-tank weapon in British service.
|Grenade, Rifle No. 44 A.T. (anti-tank)|
Intended for use a point-blank range the rod was inserted down the barrel, safety pin removed, a blank cartridge containing 2.8g of ballistite inserted into the breech of the rifle and them fired at the tank. It had a long cloth vane fitted to the base of the cylindrical tinned plate body with wire. Issued in April 1918, nearly 98,000 had been issued by the end of the War.
The grenade had a diameter of between 77mm and 80mm. a body length of 147mm and an overall length including the rod of 356mm. The grenade itself is made of curtain sheet steel canister with rounded ends and extension tube on bottom. A threaded hole in top (closed with screw cap) gives access to detonator/striker housing tube containing the detonator and striker with creeper spring. There is an off centre threaded hole in the top of the grenade for pouring the explosive when liquid into the grenade body. A steel rifle rod screws into to base of grenade with canvas curtain attached by wire just below grenade to ensure the front of the grenade hit the armour.
The No. 44 grenade held 326 grams of Amatol 80/20 or 83/17 and could shatter hardened steel plate up to 12mm thick. It had a minimum direct fire range of 30 yards and a maximum direct fire of 50 years. The grenade could not penetrate the A-7V as the armour was soft steel and too thick except for the roof, loopholes and bogies. In indirect fire at a high angle it had a range of between 50 to approximately 120 yards.
The use of the Grenade, hand and rifle, No. 27 Mk 1 WP, a smoke grenade containing a filling of white phosphorous, was also trialed as an emergency hand grenade that could be made up by troops in the field. The grenade had an overall length of 159mm and a diameter of 59mm. The grenade was a pin sheet steel cylinder, painted black; with steel washer on base with threaded hole for a rifle rod, with a threaded brass spigot on top for detonator assembly secured by split pin.
The disc from a No. 36 grenade (Mills bomb) is placed into a Mills Bomb discharger cup reversed which attached to a No. 1 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle. Then the No. 27 grenade Mk I (minus rod) was placed into it. As a Mills Bomb has a diameter of 58mm the No. 27 grenade would have fitted into the cup discharger quite snugly.
|No.1 Mills Bomb discharer cup in use by an Australian infantry grenadier at Hamel 1918|
Five pound (2.3kg) charges and 3-inch Stokes mortar bombs were to be made available to be dropped from upper storey windows onto the top of a tank, rupturing the roof, or placed under the tracks thus disabling it. The 3-inch Stokes mortar bomb weighed 4.28kg and had a charge of one kg of high explosive which could break the track of a British tank.
|3-inch Stokes motar bomb|
The British Army used the warheads from the obsolete 2-inch mortars, known as Toffee-Apple of Plum Pudding bombs as anti-tank mines. Sewn beneath barbed wire the bombs weighed 19kg and contained 5.6kg of high explosive they used six different types of fuzes including Newton six-inch mortar fuzes. They were laid in row in holes 230mm deep and 230mm in diameter at 7.6m intervals. They readily cut the track and could destroy a tank that drove over a pair as the 27th American Division found to its cost on 29 September 1918. Tanks supporting the division stumbled upon an old British minefield near Gillemont Farm and eight tanks were lost for the upcoming assault against the Germans.
|Immobilised Mk V tanks on 29 September 1918 after stumbling upon an old British minefield near Gillemont Farm|
The anti-tank weapons that the German infantry carried into the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 would appear similar to the German infantry on the Western Front in 1918. Anti-tank rifles, 37mm anti-tank guns, bundle grenades, high explosive charges and land mines.
The Germans employed defence in depth against tank attacks yet for the considerable efforts taken in both tactics and equipment, the British Army when looking at the development of an anti-tank rifle noted that the that majority of tanks knocked out by the Germans were by ‘77mm field guns fired point blank and manned by resolute crews’.
Throughout the forward battle zone there were anti-tank groups whose mission was to attack tanks. Led by energetic leaders they comprised 37mm anti-tank guns, machine guns, light trench mortars, and the T-Gewehr anti-tank rifles which were in groups of four to six rifles, each with a crew of two. Further there were there were also MG-08 heavy machine guns equipped with armour-piercing ammunition and each rifleman was issued ten armour-piercing cartridges as well. There were also improvised bundle grenades called Geballte Ladung, high explosive charges and anti-tank mines.
To combat massed tank attacks the German Army developed tank forts about one kilometre behind the front lines and mutually supporting. Depending on local conditions each fort had an area of several hundred square metres, which contained 77mm field guns, MG08 and/or MG08/15 7.92 x mm machine guns, Minenwerfer, T-Gewehr 13.2 x 92mmSR anti-tank rifles and searchlights. The individual weapons separated but mutually supporting each other.
Throughout the forward battle zone were anti-tank groups whose mission was to attack tanks. Led by energetic leaders they comprised 37mm anti-tank guns, machine guns, light trench mortars, and the T-Gewehr anti-tank rifles which were in groups of four to six rifles, each with a crew of two. Further there were there were also MG-08 heavy machine guns equipped with armour-piercing ammunition and each rifleman was issued ten armour-piercing cartridges as well. There were also improvised bundle grenades called Geballte Ladung, high explosive charges and anti-tank mines.
|German Flamethrowers training against tanks October 1918|
Late war German reports that anti-tank weapons were effective when concentrated, ‘as means of defence when 'splitting up' is avoided by both anti-tank sections and grouped together as anti-tank forts’. The method was to place the anti-tank weapons in the closet positions to the front line and the best weapons for anti-tank weapons were in order: Artillery and light trench mortars, machine guns, anti-tank rifles, infantry and pioneers with flamethrowers and explosives, searchlights and counterattacks with tanks. Other measures included land-mines, explosive hosepipe laid across likely tacks, deep and broad trenches, and covered pits with smoke, gas and lachrymatory shells used to cause delays to a tank attack.
As the British tanks became better armoured and constructed, it was noted that that ‘the action of Infantry against tanks - useless unless armed with armour piercing bullets - might be used with success if a stronger charger and a heavier bullet than the present one were used.’
At the end of the war with the battles now being much more fluid the Germans were looking at mobile anti-tank weapons, ‘offering a greater chance of success’. These included horse drawn or motorised mobile pivot-mounted guns like the PaK 18 88mm gun, field artillery guns specially detailed for Anti-Tank work with dedicated horses, and armoured motor vehicles and a light mobile tank armed with a 3" gun or automatic cannon’. Much like the Marder and Sturmgeschütz series tank destroyers from the Second World War.
The 1943 German Second World War training film Männer gegen Panzer (Men against Tanks) looked at Panzernahkampf (close-in tank fighting) showed that the infantry were still employing improvised anti-tank weapons, anti-tank mines and magnetic anti-tank grenades. In the film the majority of the weapons were aimed at the turret overhang on stationary T-34s and a KV-1 after the infantry were separated from them.
To combat tanks, in 1916 the Germans employed small calibre artillery as anti-tank weapons. These included a variety of Hotchkiss 37mm revolver and single barrel guns; 53mm and 57mm German, Belgian and Russian fortress guns; and Russian Model 04 and Model 76.2mm Mountain guns employed as ‘trench guns’ organised into detachments and batteries manned by both infantry and artillery personnel. Their use in anti-tank defence was developed considerably in 1916 and 1917 yet the British noted that, ‘the experience of 1917 showed these units were of no special value’.
In 1917 and 18 fifty infantry gun batteries using the Russian 76.2mm guns were organised, one per assault battalion with others used for anti-tank and as forward guns for close defence. The barrels were cut down, from 30 cailbres to 16.4 calibres , mounted on a low carriage with new sights graduated up to 1,800m installed. These guns fired a German manufactured 5.9kg high explosive shell with an instantaneous fuze.
|Austro-Hungarian Skoda MI15 7mm mountain gun with a Bulgarian crew in the anti-tank role|
By mid-1917 there were 50 batteries, one battery per divisional front of 77mm field guns mounted on low mounts which used a special long hardened steel pointed projectile with an internal delayed action fuze. German orders captured later noted that were ‘found unsuitable’, and probably all withdrawn by the end of 1917’.
In a document written before the Battle of Cambrai titled ‘Withdrawing Special Close Range Batteries for Anti-Tank Defence’, General Ludendorf noted that, ‘the decision to form anti-tank batteries was made at a time when an ample supply of field artillery material was available’. The continual wearing down of the Germans during the Battle of Passchendaele created a shortage of material. Further it was noted that these close range batteries were not ineffective, but buried or quickly lost or overrun and ‘It has also been found that at short ranges machine guns provided with armour piercing ammunition, at longer ranges field and heavy artillery are quite capable of engaging tanks with good effect’.
The British in April 1918 noting that there appeared to be a tendency to employ the small calibre guns, 3.7-cm and 5-cm., guns for the close defence of artillery positions and for dealing with tanks which succeed in getting through the barrage. The 7.58cm Minenwerfer neuer Art introduced in 1916 had a mount enabling it to be used in the anti-tank role. It had a very low profile when dug in and fired a very useful 4.5kg shell containing 0.56kg of high explosive. A prisoner report noting ‘two out of a unit of 12 were used off the wheel carriage for flat trajectory against tanks’.
|7.58cm Minenwerfer neuer Art used as anti-tank weapon October 1918|
The German Army developed the infantry anti-tank weapon, the 13mm T-Gewehr which entered service in April 1918. An ungainly and heavy rifle it was manned by a crew of two, the gunner who carried the rifle and the loader who could also fire the weapon. The gunner carried 20 cartridges and the loader 72 cartridges, both having a pistol each for self defence. The rifle was accepted for service in April 1918 and is 1,702mm long, with a 870mm barrel and the example using ash for the timber weighed 17kg.
There was a variant with a five round box magazine under development and a machine gun, the TuF which was based on an enlarged Maxim MG-08 water cooled machine gun.
|13mm T-Gewehr (left) next to a standard British No. 1 Mk. III rifle using the .303-in cartridge.|
The cartridge is now called the 13.2 x 92mmSR, SR being for semi-rimmed, and was and is generally referred to as the 13mm Mauser. The projectile was 13.2mm in diameter, 63mm long, weighed 51.46gm with a 26.07gm hardened steel core. It was surrounded by lead which itself was covered by a 0.8mm iron jacket covered with copper. In testing two projectiles had a computed muzzle velocity of 779 and 781 m/sec respectively which is very consistent and shows high quality manufacturing, especially so late in the war.
|13.2 x 92mm SR cartridge (left) next to the standard British .303-inch Mk. VII cartridge|
Two separate penetration tests were conducted and showed impressive results. In one test two sponson doors were clamped together to give an armoured thickness of 24mm with a small gap in between. The first shot at about 60 metres penetrated both doors, the second at 500 and 110 metres ricocheted off, and a third fired again at 110 metres at a single door which went high. The projectile hit the soft steel at the top of the door piercing that and the 12mm of armour behind that.
The Mechanical Warfare Department conducted a series of three further penetration tests in late October and early November 1918. The tests showed the round could penetrate 28mm of armour plate at 45 metres at 00 but had trouble when the armour was angled. This was more than enough and could penetrate almost any tank at the start of the Second World War until 1941.
The heaviest frontal armour on many British cruiser tanks at the start of the Second World War was only 14mm which was increased to 30mm by extra armour bolted on and the German Panzerkampfwagen III fought until 1942 with 30mm on the turret front as well.
The standard German anti-tank grenade was the an erstaz (substitute) field demolition grenade made by removing the handle from up to six the Models 1914, 1915 or 1917 ‘potato masher grenades around a central stick grenade that acts as the detonator, setting off the other grenades through sympathetic detonation. Known as the Geballte Ladung (Concentrated Charge) it contained up to 2.08kg of high explosive. In the anti-tank role four grenade heads were wired around a central stick grenade and thrown on top of a tank giving a charge of 1.4kg of high explosive. In the infantry platoon, the two best grenadiers out of every nine were designated to use these Geballte Ladung thrown onto the top of attacking tanks. They were also dropped from ground attack aircraft as were the grenades from the Granatenwerfer 16, which weighed 1.85kg and contained a 225g high explosive charge. , and are seen on the fuselage of the Halberstadt CL II as shown in the photograph below .
|Observer being handed a Geballte Ladung with Granatenwerfer 16 on the fuselage|
High explosive charges were also against armour notably at Fontaine during the November 1917 Battle of Cambrai.
Anti-Tank Mines and Traps
The Germans laid minefields containing standard and a myriad of ersatz (substitute) land mines using artillery shells, little different to the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) seen in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan today. Besides artillery shells the Germans produced the Flachmine 17 anti-tank mine which was a wood box camouflaged and painted in the colours similar to the terrain they were employed in. They were 203mm by 250mm by 50mm high and were laid in front of the barbed wire in No-Man’s Land, in front of the tank forts and supporting positions like field artillery. They were exploded by a heavy object travelling over the top setting of the detonator. Both pressure fuzes and command detonation were used in German anti-tank minefields.
|German Army soldiers bringing up mines to set as protection against advancing British Army tanks in October 1918. Note both Flachmine 17 anti-tank mines and improvised explosive devices using artillery shells are being carried.|
Ditch constructed for an unwary tank to become immobilised in, exposing the roof to anti-tank fire.
Armour-Piercing Small Arms Ammunition
The German Army discovered that by reversing the standard 7.92 x 57mm projectile and adding more powder the projectile would cause spalling on the inside the armour. This was defeated by increasing the thickness of the tank armour. The cartridge was fired from rifle barrels as it was difficult if not impossible to feed in a machine gun. If the rifle barrel became too hot, the jacket of the projectile could stay in the barrel with disastrous results for the firer when the next projectile having lodged in the barrel, caused the barrel or bolt to rupture.
As British tanks were made of plates riveted onto a frame there were gaps between the plates. The gaps enabled the lead cores and sometimes steel cores to squeeze through them which became known as bullet splash. Rarely fatal unless a neck artery was cut, it could cause blindness if an eye was hit, and made life inside the tanks very unpleasant in what was already an unpleasant environment.
In April/May 1917 the 7.92 x 57mm SmK, or more commonly in the First World War the ‘K’ armour piercing cartridge, and its tracer variant the SmKL, were first issued in continued in used until the end of the Second World War. It was shock to the German Army in the June 1917 Battle for Messines when it found its new armour piercing projectiles were ineffective against the new British Mark IV. The armour having been increased due to expected armour-piercing projectiles and the ability of the reversed projectiles causing damage to the sides of earlier Marks of the tanks.
￼ 1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-055-02A / CC-BY-SA
￼2 . Instructions for Anti-Tank Defence, S.S.203, Issued by the General Staff, France, February 1918.
￼ 3. Ibid., pp, 1 & 3.
￼ 4. Ibid., p. 4
￼ 5. Ibid., p. 5.
￼ 6. Ibid.
￼ 7. Labbett P. & Brown, F.A. British Anti-tank Rifle Ammunition 1917 – 1945, Labbett Brown, London, 1988, pp, 2 &3.
￼ 8. Stonley, J. ‘Notes on the T-Gewehr and its 13mm cartridge’, Guns Review, Vol, 17, No. 11, November 1977, pp. 656 – 660.
￼ 9. Labbett & Brown, op cit. p. 2.
￼ 10. Grenade, Rifle No 44 A.T. (Anti-Tank), MUN 3216’; http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/ item/ object/ 30023655; Grenade, Rifle, No 44 Anti-Tank (Sectioned), MUN 1527, http://www.iwm.org.uk/ collections/ item/object/30020084.
￼ 11. Instructions and Information regarding the Employment of the Anti-Tank Grenade - Grenade .303" Short Rifle, Anti-Tank pattern dated 23 July 1918; Australian War Memorial File AWM25 115/35 ‘Report on A/T grenade – Grenade .303in Short rifle anti-tank pattern’, AWM25 115/43 [Bombs and Grenades] Reports on: 1) Anti-Tank Grenade 2) Humphries percussion Land Grenade 3) MSK Grenade filled KJ 4) New Egg Grenade and idea for bomb to be used at night for attacking depots, camps, railheads etc. Descriptions and diagrams; ‘Data Sheet No. 16. – Grenade Rifle No. 44 Anti-Tank’, , Ammunition and Explosive Regulations, Vol.4, Pam13, Sec 5, Data Sheet 16 HMSO undated.
￼ 12. Ibid.
￼ 13. ‘Grenade, hand and rifle, No 27 Mk 1 WP, MUN 1411’, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/ object/30022803.
￼14. ‘Enfield No1 Mk3 SMLE Grenade Cup Launcher (discharger), MUN 6078, http://www.iwm.org. uk/collections/item/object/30106302.
￼ 15. ‘Report on A/T grenade – Grenade .303in short rifle anti-tank pattern’, op. cit.
￼ 16. Grenade, hand and rifle, No 36 M Mk 1(Sectioned), MUN1466’, http://www.iwm. org.uk/ collections/item/object/30022852.
￼ 17. Instructions for Anti-Tank Defence, op. cit., p. 7.
￼18. ‘Appendix E. Details of Ammunition’, Field Artillery Notes No. 7, Army War College, Washington D.C., August 1917, p. 80; Photograph reference http://www.iwm.org.uk/ collections/item/object/30020449
￼19. Exhibit Notes Display at the Imperial War Museum 1919: Ordnance M.L. 2-inch Trench Howitzer Mark I (British standard Medium Trench Mortar); ‘Appendix E. Details of Ammunition’, loc.cit; KCLMA Fuller/1/1/113, Reports on trials at tank headquarters with anti-tank fuses, methods of laying anti-tank contact mines, 6 February 1918
￼20. Bean, C.E.W. & Gullett, H.S. ‘Battles of the Hindenburg Line- Tank Destroyed In a Minefield’, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 18, Vol. XII Photographic Record of the War’, Angus and Roberston, Sydney, 1943, Photographic Plates numbers 558 & 559.
￼21. Labbett & Brown, op cit. p. 1.
￼ 22. A Survey of German Tactics, 1918, War Department, Washington D.C. December 1918, p. 39.
￼ 23. Ibid, pp. 39 & 40.
￼ 24. Translation of captured German document. 21 September 18. Lt von Pawelsz, for CGS, 17th [German] Army HQ. Anti-tank defence, with illustrations of allied tanks and of anti-tank devices, dated 13 November 1918
￼ 25. Handbook of the German Army in War. January 1917, issued by the General Staff, France, 1917, p. 75;
￼ 26. Handbook of the German Army in War. April 1918, issued by the General Staff, France, 1918, p. 91.
￼ 27. Ibid.
￼ 28. Ibid.
￼ 29. KCLMA Fuller/1/1/111, Annexe to Tank Corps summary. Translation of German document referring to the period before the Cambrai battle. Ludendorff, CGS of the Field Army. Suggested withdrawal of special close range batteries for anti-tank defence, 29 January 1918.
￼ 30. Manual for Trench Artillery, United States Army, (Provisional), Part I Trench Artillery, Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces France, March 1918, pp. 71 - 73
￼31. KCLMA Fuller/1/1/124, Hotblack. Summary of information, including details of anti- tank rifle and anti-tank land mines, HQ Tank Corps, 25 July 1918; 7.6 cm Minenwerfer 1916 Pattern (trench mortar)
￼ 32. The author has handled the T-Gewehr on at least two occasions and can attest to its size and clumsiness.
￼ 33. Summarised English translation dated October 1918 of ‘Provisional Instructions for the Employment of the Anti-Tank Rifle’ translated from German in the French ‘Monthly Report on Enemy Material No. 225, in Stonley, op.cit., p, 657.
￼34 . ‘Report from GHQ, British Armies in France, dated July 20th. 1918’ in Stonley, loc. cit.
￼ 35. ‘Report by the Central Laboratory of the BEF dated July 23rd, 1918’ in Stonley, op.cit., p. 657 & 658. Interestingly there appeared to be shortage of captured cartridges for the rifles. Australia received 37 T-Gewehr rifles and only one cartridge from captured stocks. Cartridges and Anti-Tank Rifle, Australian War Memorial File 4386/1/89115/43 dated 23 March 1919.
￼ 36. ‘HQ Tank Corps Report of test conducted on July 31st, 1918’, in Stonley, op.cit., pp. 658 & 659.
￼ 37. ‘Trial conducted by the Mechanical Warfare Department’ on 1 November 1918’, in Stonely, op.cit., p. 659.
￼ 38. White, B.T. British Tanks and Fighting Vehicles 1919-1945, Ian Allan, London, 1970, pp. 56 – 60; Spielberger, W. Panzerkampfwagen III, Profile Publications, Surrey, 1970, p. 23. ￼ . If the maximum of six grenade heads were used around a central stick grenade. Cylindrical Stick Grenade (Stielhandgranate), MUN 2035’, http://www.iwm.org.uk /collections/ item / object/30020454
￼ 39. A Survey of German Tactics, 1918, op. cit., p. 39.
￼ 40. Grantanwerder 16 (Gr. W. 16). Erhausgegeben von Ronigildjen Engineur=Komitee, Berlin.
￼ 41. Instructions for Anti-Tank Defence, loc.cit.
￼ 42. Conway, G.D Cormack A.J.R. (ed). ‘Small Arms Ammunition’ in Small Arms in Profile Volume 1, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1973, pp. 7 – 9.
￼ 43. This was already known to the British tank crews. Notes on the use of tanks and the general principles of their employment as an adjunct to the Infantry attack, S.S. 164, Issued by the General Staff, France, May 1917, p. 2.
￼ 44. White, op.cit., p. 34; Ellis, C and Chamberlain P. ‘Tanks Mark I to V’ & Foley, J. ‘Tank Mark IV’ in Crow. D. (Ed), AFV1914’19 Armoured Fighting Vehicles of World War One, Profile Publications, Berkshire, 1970, pp. 36 & 45 respectively.