Tanks always create a morale effect on infantry, however often they have seen tanks, or have been told by officers that they will be quite safe if they take cover and let the tanks pass on. It is recognised that infantry can do nothing against tanks. The troops themselves will await a tank attack with calmness. The first essential for the infantry is that they should keep their heads. Anti-tank defence is nowadays more a question of nerves than of material. The German infantry still considers that as soon as the tanks have broken through their line, further resistance is useless. A German Corps order: “Messages concerning tanks have preference over all other telephone calls, including messages regarding aeroplanes.”
—from The Tank in Action by Captain D.G. Browne, MC
When the tank first entered military service with the British Army in World War I, its primary mission was to break through the enemy defenses and enable British infantry elements to penetrate the German line and engage the opposition in open battle. The early successes caused the Germans to think about ways to defeat the new mechanical threat. Since then the world’s armies have concentrated great resources on the design, development, production and utilization of both tank and anti-tank weaponry. Each new, seemingly invincible, tank design has ultimately been countered or seriously threatened, by anti-tank weaponry, whether gun, rocket, grenade, mine or other device.
It was initially thought that a heavily armored tank was more easily put out of action through wounding or killing the crew than through damaging the vehicle itself. The early tank was armored with a form of boiler plate, protecting the crew from rifle and machine-gun bullets and small shrapnel fragments. The driver operated the vehicle while peering through a narrow vision slit at the front of the tank, leaving him somewhat vulnerable to fire from German infantry ahead. Even though the likelihood of the enemy actually hitting the driver through that slit was slim, he and the eight other crew members were extremely vulnerable to metal fragment splash from rounds hitting near the slit. They soon adapted chain-mail visors or steel masks to protect against the splash effect.
Next to killing or seriously wounding the crew of a tank, the objective of the opposing force was to stop the vehicle by any means available, making it a stationary target and thus easier to destroy or eliminate as a threat. When a slow-moving tank of 1916 managed to breach the enemy line and advance into the open, it often became relatively easy game for opposing artillery which was likely to stop it.
The First World War brought other anti-tank concepts. Enemy infantry tried lobbing grenades onto the hulls of tanks as they approached, in an effort to injure the crew and cause damage within the vehicle by blowing a hole through its roof. Tank designers were quick to protect against this threat by putting a sloped, triangular “roof” of wood and wire netting over the tank. When a grenade landed on the roof it either exploded away from the hull itself, or fell off and exploded on the ground, doing little or no damage to the tank. Infantry personnel also tried, with varying success, to explode set charges beneath tanks as the vehicles crossed them. Attempts to stop enemy tanks with ditches or trenches often failed as the tanks were designed to cross such gaps.
In its infancy, the tank was probably its own worst enemy, being slow, underpowered and unreliable. More often than not, it bogged down in mud, succumbed to some insurmountable obstacle or simply broke down mechanically, becoming an easy mark for enemy gunners.
As tanks became faster, more maneuverable, more reliable, better armed and better armored during the 1920s, the efforts to find an effective counter intensified. The designers of anti-tank weaponry now focused on the most vulnerable aspects of their target. Apparent weaknesses in the tank structure such as the tracks, suspension and hatches were quickly exploited. The tank crew was re-targetted with new emphasis put on burning them out of action by attacking the inflammable fuel and ammunition carried in the vehicle. The use of rifle and machine-gun fire to kill the driver either in his open hatch, or through his vision block was also emphasized. Greater attention was paid to finding weak points in a tank’s armor as it became clear that the tank planners of the day were utilizing the heaviest armor on the turret and front of the hull, with thinner plating on the sides, rear and top surfaces.
In 1936 the Spanish Civil War provided a unique opportunity for the testing and evaluation of a wide variety of weaponry, from bomber and attack aircraft through tanks (both light and heavy) and anti-tank systems. Italian and German light tanks were proved highly vulnerable to the relatively small-calibre anti-tank guns of the time, and to an early form of Molotov Cocktail, used by the Soviet-supported Republican forces. The most interesting tank-related lesson of the conflict, in terms of the approaching Second World War, was a German experiment in which their gunners employed a small number of 88mm anti-aircraft guns against a few hapless Soviet BT-4 tanks. So devastating was their effect on the tanks that the future development of German tank armament was dramatically influenced by the experiment.
By the end of the 1930s a new sophistication had invaded the field of tank design. The previous flat-slab look began to give way to a somewhat contoured shape as the advantages of a sloping surface came to light. It was realized that the probability of an enemy round deflecting off such a sloped surface was far greater than was the case with a slab-sided structure. Soon a combination of this “ballistic shaping” and a new welded and cast type of armor was defining the tank weapon for the 1940s. The use of welded seams in place of rivets increased the protection factor for tank crews substantially by eliminating the possibility of rivets being turned into potentially lethal missiles when the tank hull was struck by incoming rounds.
Tanks were now more powerful and faster, making them more difficult targets for enemy gunners to hit, but new anti-tank guns were able to fire larger, higher-velocity rounds with improved penetration which increased their lethality when a tank was hit. The new rounds soon reached a point of diminishing return, however, when it was discovered that beyond a certain velocity, they actually shattered on impact with the new tank armor, leaving the vehicle relatively undamaged.
As the armor grew in thickness, strength and resistance to penetration, industrialists working on ways to defeat the tank turned their attention to the problems with their ammunition. Part of the trouble with existing anti-tank rounds was the steel of which they were made. The search for a harder, denser, more shatter-resistant material was on in earnest. The solution seemed to be tungsten carbide, but this, although affordable, was considerably heavier than steel and projectiles made of it therefore achieved much lower velocities than comparable steel rounds. At this point a German idea from the 1920s resurfaced when the Rheinmetall company succeeded in building a light anti-tank gun with a tapered bore. The new gun fired a shell with a tungsten core and a soft steel body mounted with “skirts” which were compressed around the body of the projectile as it travelled through the barrel of the gun. The effect gave both the high velocity and increased penetration power that the makers wanted. The new weapon proved quite effective in the North African desert engagements of 1942.
By 1943 work was under way in Britain on one of the most important anti-tank concepts ever: the Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS). A sabot is a lightweight carrier in which a projectile of a smaller calibre is centered so as to permit the projectile to be fired from within a larger calibre weapon. The carrier fills the bore of the weapon from which the projectile is fired and is normally discarded a short distance from the muzzle. The result of this effort, a 3 1/4-pound (at loading) round capable of achieving a muzzle velocity of 1,234 meters per second and penetrating 146mm of armor at a range of 915 meters, made its combat debut in Normandy during June 1944. This was progress and an impressive achievement. But the Germans, whose own supplies of tungsten were so limited that they were unable to allocate any of the precious material for further use in ammunition, had managed to develop and field vehicles in the form of the Tiger II and Jagdtiger (the latter a tank destroyer) with armor capable of standing up to the APDS. Additionally, the 88mm gun of the Tiger II was an overmatch for any tank at a range of 1,500 meters or more, while the 128mm gun of the Jagdtiger could deliver a round able to smash through armor of 200mm thickness at a 1,000 meter range. Their ammunition was developed without the use of tungsten.
In World War II, several techniques were devised to attack and defeat tanks—methods which often relied on daring, skill, and rather unsophisticated weaponry and which frequently placed the tank-killers at considerable personal risk. A lone soldier might, for example, attempt to sneak up on a tank to toss a grenade at it, or drop one into it through an open turret or hatch. The turret itself would sometimes be targetted in an effort by an enemy gunner to hit the turret ring, jamming or disabling the turret, and possibly the tank through injury to the crew. With the turret disabled, the tank was often a sitting duck, unable to offer much fight or defend itself. Another choice target was the engine compartment. It was sometimes attacked with explosive charges placed or attached appropriately, but this generally involved an heroic action on the part of the attacker at extremely high risk to himself.
The use of fire as a means of halting a tank by destroying or severely injuring the crew was thoroughly explored in that war. Many approaches to firing tanks were tried, with particular emphasis upon those which would ignite the ammunition and fuel supplies in the vehicle. The fear of being burned to death while trapped inside must have caused many a tank crew to operate their vehicle in a completely buttoned-up condition in combat, to minimize the threat from such attacks. Opposing soldiers facing such closed-down tanks had to lob their Molotov Cocktails above the vehicle’s vents in an attempt to fire the interior and either kill the crew or force it to evacuate the tank.
Among the most difficult of targets for the tank attacker were the tracks. These could theoretically be broken or damaged through the use of explosive charges or mines. If the charge failed to immobilize the tank by causing it to throw a track, sufficient damage to the suspension might still halt the vehicle.
It was the Soviets who, in the 1960s, determined to get the very most out of a tank gun by mounting a smooth-bore weapon on it. The idea involved reducing friction and thus gaining greater velocity by eliminating the barrel rifling. Of course, it was the rifling that stabilized the round in flight and added considerably to its accuracy on target. In time the Soviets solved the problem of how to have both velocity and accuracy by what became known as fin-stabilization. It enabled them to use the highly effective Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot in the form of a long dart with a tungsten core surrounded by a sabot designed for the smooth gun bore. The result was greatly improved penetration and accuracy. In the ’60s and ’70s, all nations operating tank forces became devotees of the Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS). The weapon itself was soon enhanced by the replacement of the tungsten core with one of depleted uranium. This nuclear by-product offered significant advances over tungsten, not least being its greater density and punching power.
The next important achievement in the tank v anti-tank competition came with the early ’70s British development called “Chobham Armor,” a still-secret compound believed to contain steel, plastic and ceramics, with tungsten blocks and rods embedded in it. It is considered most efficient in defeating both the APFSDS and the shaped-charge of HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) weapon. A shaped-charge is one in which explosives are “shaped” around the outside of a copper cone. With the explosion of the warhead, the resultant energy is directed inwards and forwards, which creates a stream of gas and molten metal, forcing a metal slug to the front, which then melts through the tank armor. At the same time, Israel was creating Explosive Reactive Armor, a system which has become standard with most major tank users since the 1980s. There is no more remarkable example of tank versus tank action than that of Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittman against the tanks of the British 7th Armored Division near Villers Bocage, Normandy, on 13 June 1944. Born in Vogelthal, Upper Pfalz on 22 April 1914, Wittman had entered the German Army in 1934 as a regular soldier before transferring to the Waffen SS in 1936. In September 1939 he participated in the Polish campaign as the commander of an armored car and was promoted to Untersturmführer. After his participation in the invasions of France and Yugoslavia, he became a member of an SS Panzer Division and in November 1942 began training on the Tiger E heavy tank. On the Eastern Front he served with 13 Company of SS Panzer Regiment 1 Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, fighting in the Battle of Kursk, followed by service in Italy and another stint in Russia. Promoted to Obersturmführer in January 1944, he was transferred to Belgium, and then to France in time for the Allied invasion of Normandy.
As commander, 2 Company, SS Heavy Tank Battalion 101, he led a unit credited with destroying 119 Russian tanks and was heavily decorated for his achievements to June 1944.
At dawn on 13 June, only four of the six Tiger tanks led by Michael Wittman were serviceable. They lay in thick cover on a hill above the village of Villers Bocage, perfectly positioned to observe the tanks, personnel carriers and half-tracks of the 7th Armored Division’s A Squadron, 4th County of London Yeomanry and A Company, 1st Rifle Brigade as they rolled through the village and halted in a column.
Wittman acted immediately. His lead Tiger emerged from its cover and took up a firing position adjacent to the village main road. His first shot destroyed a British half-track and the wreck lay blocking the road. With his Tiger rolling slowly along a lane parallel to the road, he fired round after round, methodically picking off the enemy tanks and other vehicles. The British tanks returned fire but the majority of their rounds made no impression on the heavily armored Tiger. Now Wittman’s tank moved onto the village road itself and travelled into the village where he encountered and destroyed a number of artillery observation Sherman tanks along with a Cromwell attempting to position itself for a shot at the German. Satisfied with the morning’s work, Wittman withdrew from Villers Bocage, returning to the cover of the nearby hill.
In renewed tank fighting at the village that afternoon, the panzers faired less well, losing three Tigers and having three immobilized, including Wittman’s. But the Germans had clearly won the day, having destroyed twenty-five 7th Armored Division tanks, fourteen personnel carriers, and fourteen half-tracks. The British were forced to withdraw to the west of the village. As a result of this engagement, Michael Wittman was promoted to his ultimate rank of Hauptsturmführer and received the swords to his Knight’s Cross. He was also offered an appointment to a German Officers’ Tactical School, which he declined, preferring to remain with his unit. It is generally believed that he was killed on 8 August near Caen while engaged in combat with British Sherman Firefly tanks, but this has been disputed in recent years. It has been claimed that his tank and crew were actually the victims of a rocket attack by an RAF Typhoon fighter-bomber. Other reports indicate that his demise resulted from an attack by heavy artillery.
In the summer of 1983, members of the German War Graves Commission, assisted by French and British volunteers, found the remains of Michael Wittman and his crew. These remains were later buried in a communal grave at the German war cemetery near La Cambe in Normandy.
Stopping tanks isn’t always about weaponry. The weapons are the tools required and when one side has superior weaponry, the odds are that it will triumph. But frequently, what tips the odds is human judgement, intelligence, and opportunism. Wittman’s Tiger was indeed superior in many ways to the tanks of the 7th Armored Division that June day in 1944, but the factors which led to such a one-sided victory for the Germans were more human than mechanical. The decision on the part of the British armored commander to bring his tank column to a halt at Viller Bocage in a tight nose-to-tail column that morning effectively trapped all of his vehicles where they sat. They were left with no possibility of escape and little ability to defend themselves, much less take up an offensive role against an enemy tank force that was known to be in the area. Wittman, on the other hand, observed, intelligently assessed and seized his opportunity, taking the fullest advantage of its possibilities. It is conceivable that he might have achieved a similar result had he been in command of a tank less formidable than the Tiger.