Al Murray and James Holland discussed my new book about the PIAT on a livestream for their great podcast ‘We Have Ways‘, please do check them out – here.
Massive thanks to Al and James for their enthusiasm about the book (and the PIAT!) and for their kind words about it! Al gives a nice short rundown of some of the areas I cover in the book. [You can watch the entire livestream here]
The book explores the design, development and operational history of the PIAT. If you’d like a copy, you can pick a copy up at HistoricalFirearms.info/shop
I’m very excited to say that my second book has been published! It looks at the much maligned and much misunderstood PIAT – Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank.
The book is available from retailers from the 20th August in the UK/Europe and the 22nd September in the US – but you can order a copy from me now regardless of location. I filmed a short video to show you the book and talk a bit about the process of writing it, check that out above.
The PIAT was the British infantry’s primary anti-tank weapon of the second half of the Second World War. Unlike the better known US Bazooka the PIAT wasn’t a rocket launcher – it was a spigot mortar. Throwing a 2.5lb bomb, containing a shaped charge capable of penetrating up to 4 inches of armour. Thrown from the spigot by a propellant charge in the base of the bomb, it used a powerful spring to soak up the weapon’s heavy recoil and power its action.
With a limited range the PIAT’s users had to be incredibly brave. This becomes immediately obvious when we see just how many Victoria Crosses, Military Medals and Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to men who used the PIAT in action.
The book includes numerous accounts of how the PIAT was used and how explores just how effective it was. I have spent the past 18 months researching and writing the book and it is great to finally see a copy in person and know it’s now available.
The book includes brand new information dug up from in-depth archival research, never before seen photographs of the PIAT in development and in-service history and it also includes some gorgeous illustrations by Adam Hook and an informative cutaway graphic by Alan Gilliland.
It’s immensely exciting to know the book is out in the world for all too enjoy. If you’d like a copy of my new book looking at the PIAT’s design, development and operational history you can order one directly from me here!
Thanks for your support and if you pick up a copy of the book I really hope you enjoy it!
Whilst looking through the piles of surplus ‘kit’ in my friends warehouse in Germany I came across an interesting find, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) training kit that has several examples of WWII and after ordnance that might be found on training grounds and former battlefields throughout Europe.
One of the elements from that training kit was a PIAT or Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank, round. Many of these have been found across northwest Europe since the end of WWII and it was important for EOD teams to be able to identify them and understand how they work in order to safely dispose of them.
This example is likely an ‘instructional’ round that may have been produced from a previously live round and not subsequently marked as inert. In the video, which was filmed on location from memory, I mentioned that the charge was inside the front cone. Instead the charge was actually just behind the steel cone, which acted as a forcing cone, and has seen been replaced by some sawdust. We can see this in the diagram below, which shows an earlier Mk round but the configuration remains the same:
This time we examine an example of the Mk3 PIAT Bomb. When I filmed the video I wasn’t sure of the markings but this chart below more clearly explains them:
There were 7 marks of PIAT bomb:
MkI yellow/green/yellow band 808 stamped on green band, red x’s around nose cone
Mk2 as above
Mk3 yellow/blue/yellow band TNT stamped on blue band, red circle around nose cone
Mk4 as above
Inert bomb black with yellow band INERT in white
Drill bomb black with DRILL in white x 2
Practice bomb – to fit the practice insert tray, painted white and it looks nothing at all like a PIAT bomb!
Our inert bomb isn’t painted black, instead it is painted up as a Mk3 to emulate what a live blind found in the field would look like.
Here’s an extract from the PIAT’s manual explaining how the fuze was fitted to a live round:
From the PIAT manual: The fuze. – Until required for use the fuze is kept in a container attached to the drum tail by a spring clip….
ii. To fuze. – Remove the fuze container from the drum tail and take out the fuze. Remove the thimble from the bomb nose by pressing it downwards and turning it clockwise. Remove the transit plug from the fuze chamber and insert the fuze flat end first. Replace the thimble. The transit plug should be placed in the fuze container and the latter put in the carrier, in case the bomb should later have to be unfuzed.
Development of the gun actually began before the war in 1938, but the QF 6pdr MkII Anti-Tank gun didn’t enter full production until 1942. After the evacuation from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, and the loss of nearly 600 AT guns, it was decided to focus on the 2pdr which was then already in production. The 6pdr saw action for the first time in the Western Desert against the Afrika Korps, serving alongside its predecessor the 2pdr.
The 6pdr was a 57mm gun, firing a 57x441mmR shell effective out to 1,700 yards or 1,500m – with a rated maximum range of 5,000 yd. Unlike its predecessor the 6pdr could fire both armour piercing and high explosive rounds. The gun weighed in at 2,520 lb or just under 1,150 kg. Manned by a six man crew the gun had a vertically sliding breechblock and could fire up to 15 rounds per minute.
The 6pdr had a Hydro-pneumatic recuperator which mitigated some of the gun’s recoil. The barrel recoiled around 30 inches along its cradle immediately after firing. It was mounted on a variety of carriages with the most common being a split trail carriage with 45-degrees of traverse left and right. The 6pdr could be fired with its split trail deployed or closed. The gun could be elevated 15-degrees and depressed 5-degrees – less than its predecessor, although elevation was not a key requirement for a direct fire weapon like an anti-tank gun.
Five Marks of 6pdr were produced, the MkI development model was declared obsolete and didn’t enter production. Production of the MkII began in late 1941, it had a shorter barrel and was later replaced by the longer barrelled MkIV, which also had a single-baffle muzzle brake, one of the first British guns to have one. The MkIII and V variants had special lugs to enable them to be mounted in tanks. The first guns produced were MkIIIs, while these could be carriage mounted they were earmarked for tanks.
The MkIII Airborne carriage was designed to be lighter so it could be transported aboard gliders and aircraft. Its trail legs were jointed in order to save room and the carriage was narrower which restricted the traverse to 37-degrees left or right. The shield was also redesigned with an even smaller profile. Identifiable by its straight, rather than wavy, top edge.
The gun was aimed using a No.22C 2 or 3-power sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun, which projected through a sight box in the shield. The gunner also had an elevation wheel to his right and, unlike the 2pdr, the 6pdr used a free traverse rather than a geared wheel system. This was controlled by the gunner pushing or pulling the gun. The gun was fired by a firing lever on the left side of the breech. On the right side of the gun, an ammunition box with space for three rounds could be attached to the shield for emergency use. The gun shield consisted of two/four sections, made of bulletproof steel plate, which had a lower profile than the earlier 2pdr.
Unlike the 2pdr, the 6pdr had an array of ammunition that continued to evolve during the war. The initial armour piercing round could penetrate 70mm or 2.8in of armour at 1,600 yards / 1,500m while the Armour-Piercing Capped Ballistic Cap (APCBC) introduced in early 1943 increased this to 3.1in, while the Armour-Piercing, Discarding Sabot (APDS) shot introduced in Spring 1944, enabled it to effectively engage Tiger I and Panther frontal armour, penetrating 4.8 inches of armour at 1,500m. It is worth noting that figures on penetration vary somewhat from source to source. A high explosive shell that allowed the guns to engage non-armoured targets more effectively was introduced in 1943.
Initially used solely by the Royal Artillery’s anti-tank regiments comprising of four batteries, each with 12 guns. By 1944 an infantry division would be equipped with as many as 78 6pdrs and more than 30 heavier 17pdrs while an armoured divisions was equipped with 30 6pdrs.
The 6pdrs first saw action in North Africa proving to be highly effective against both Italian and German armour. During the Second Battle of El Alamein, 19 6pdrs were instrumental in the defence of Outpost Snipe. The 2nd Rifle Brigade and their supporting 6pdrs managed to knock out more than 55 Axis armoured vehicles including Panzer IIIs, Semovente 75/18 self-propelled guns and a number of Panzer IVs. The gunners used enfilading fire to target weaker side armour and interlocked fields of fire caught advancing tanks in killing grounds.
During Operation Market Garden, the airborne 6pdrs of the Airlanding Anti-Tank Batteries proved critical in beating back German armoured counter attacks around Oosterbeek and at the bridge in Arnhem itself. They were instrumental in repulsing the SS reconnaissance battalion which attempted to cross the bridge on the second day of the battle.
One desperate action involving a section of two 6pdrs saw three StuG-III self-propelled guns knocked out before the crews of both guns were killed. The last survivor, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield managed to man on of the guns alone and destroy a fourth StuG-III before he was killed. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Like its predecessor the 6pdr was also used as a vehicle gun, mounted in the Churchill Mks III & IV, Valentine Mk IX and the Crusader Mk III tanks as well as the Canadian MkII Ram and the MkII AEC Armoured Car. These vehicles had previously been designed to mount the 2pdr, but were adapted to fit the new 6pdr, in some cases having to remove a crew member from the turret to make enough room to fit the new gun. The Cavalier, Cromwell and Centaur tanks were designed to mount the new larger gun from scratch.
The first tank, equipped with a 6pdr, to go into action was the Mk III Churchill, which took part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid in August 1942. The new tanks, assigned to the 14th Army Tank Regiment (The Calgary Regiment (Tank)), were all abandoned or destroyed during the raid.
In North Africa, like the 2pdr, the heavier guns were mounted on trucks as Portees. Additionally AEC produced the Mk1 Gun Carrier or Deacon self-propelled gun – a 6pdr mounted in an armoured turret on the back of an AEC Matador truck chassis. These performed well in the desert but more enclosed country made them vulnerable and they were removed from service after the North African campaign.
It was not only tanks the 6pdr found itself mounted in. Coupled with the Molins automatic loading system it was also mounted in the RAF’s De Havilland Mosquito Mark XVIII ‘Tstetse’ and the Royal Navy’s motor torpedo boats. The Navy’s Molins auto-loader allowed the gun to fire a 6-round burst at a rate of 1 round per second. Nearly 600 naval versions of the gun, the QF 6pdr MkIIA, were produced. The RAF’s use was more short-lived with only 17 6pdr Tstetses built before 3in rockets were standardised. Despite this two Tsetse of 248 Squadron sank the German submarine U-976 in March 1944.
The US also adopted the 6pdr to replace their 37mm M3 anti-tank gun. It had initially been planned to produce the 6pdr in the US under the lend-lease agreement (4,242 guns were eventually delivered for British use) but in May 1941 the US approved the production of the 6pdr as the 57mm M1 Gun. The US M1 guns had a longer barrel than their British counterparts and many smaller differences in manufacture. The US, like Britain, mounted the gun on vehicles such as the M3 half-track – the T48 Gun Motor Carriage. By the end of the war the US has produced over 15,600 M1 anti-tank guns.
Ordnance QF 75mm was developed from the 6pdr, the 75mm guns were manufacture by boring out the 6pdr’s barrel to enable it to fire the US 75mm M46 HE round. The QF 75mm was fitted to a number of British armoured vehicles from 1943 onwards.
The 6pdr was a simpler gun to manufacture than its predecessor but despite being effective throughout the war it too was surpassed by a heavier gun, the QF 17pdr AT gun, which was developed in the early 1940s, the 17pdr was accepted for service in May 1942 but the 6pdr remained in service alongside the heavier guns.
After the end of the war the 6pdr continued to see use with a number of countries including Israel during the 1950s, the Irish Army and South Korea during the Korean War. The 6pdr remained in British service until 1951, before being replaced entirely by the 17pdr.
The interwar period saw many countries under invest in their militaries, Britain was no exception. One area of equipment that went lacking for many years was adequate anti-tank weaponry. This was finally addressed in the mid-1930s with the Superintendent of Design at Woolwich arsenal developing the 2pdr anti-tank gun, which adopted in 1936.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill watches a demonstration of a 2pdr AT gun (Imperial War Museum)
Officially designated the ‘Ordnance QF 2-pounder Mark IX’, the 2pdr was an attempt to provide a light and mobile high velocity anti-tank gun which was relatively cheap to produce and effective against contemporary tank armour. It was also intended that the gun would itself be mounted in armoured vehicles and tanks.
In 1934 development contracts were awarded to Woolwich and the Vickers-Armstrong company for the design of carriages for the new gun, the Vickers Mark I and the Mark II from Woolwich. The Mark I had a slightly different armour shield and leg design.
These two carriages were tested against one another with trials taking place from November 1935 through to the summer of 1936. The Vickers design initially won out and the first order for 44 guns was placed in 1936. A subsequent re-evaluation of an improved version of the Woolwich carriage found it superior and the Mark II carriage was adopted.
The business end, note the 2pdr’s tall armour shield to protect the crew (Matthew Moss)
The 2pdr fired a 40×304mmR armour piercing round which weighed 2lbs 6oz or 900g and was effective out to 1,000 yards against up to 1.5 inches of armour. It had a four man crew and was capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute. It had an all steel barrel with a removeable breech ring and a vertically sliding breech block. The gun had an innovative and very stable three-legged collapsible platform, rather than a split-trail carriage, that also allowed the gun to be rotate through 360 degrees when its road wheels were removed. The 2pdr had a semi-automatic action with a hydraulic/hydrospring recoil system which used hydraulic fluid to absorb the gun’s recoil. This allowed the gun to be rapidly aimed and fired despite recoiling approximately 20 inches (or ~50cm).
A number of variants of the gun were developed during the war, with the original Mark IX, a simplified production model the Mark IXA, the Mark X which had a barrel made of higher-yield steel which was not autofrettaged – making it easier to manufacture and the Mark XA which was produced to lower tolerances and able to use the Littlejohn adapter.
Here’s a Royal Army Ordnance Corps training film on the 2pdr (courtesy of the AWM) in full:
Weighing around 1,800lbs or 816kg (or 4/5 of an Imperial Ton) the 2pdr was deemed to be too heavy for the infantry it had been designed for and in 1938 it was transferred to the Royal Artillery. Typically the guns were grouped together in anti-tank battalions each with three batteries made up of four troops which operated four guns each. That’s 16 guns per battery and 48 guns per battalion. Typically a battalion would be assigned to support a division. They were designed to be towed by a variety of vehicles with trucks, jeeps and Universal Carriers often being used.
The 2pdr was typically equipped with a No.24B 2x sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun. It also had an iron sight but the armoured shield had to be lowered to use it. On the right side of the breech an ammunition box, holding 16 rounds was be stored for easy access, another two boxes holding 8 rounds each could be strapped to the carriage behind the ammunition box (described as the emergency ammunition box). The rest of the ammunition in twelve more 8-round containers, giving a total of 96 rounds assigned to each gun, was carried on the truck which towed the gun.
A view of the gun from behind its shield, on the left the gunners sear, the aiming scope, traverse and elevation controls and on the right the space for the ammunition boxes (Matthew Moss)
The gunlayer sat in a small seat mounted to the carriage and the loader knelt to the right of the breech. The gun was turned by a small traversing wheel operated by the gunlayer. In low gear one rotation of the wheel would turn the gun 3 degrees, in the higher gear (activated by the right foot pedal) one rotation traversed the gun 20 degrees. This meant the gun could be traversed the full 360 degrees with 18 rotations of the wheel. The right hand wheel controlled elevation of the barrel. The gun was fired by the gunlayer using the left foot pedal or two emergency firing levers if the pedal became inoperable. While the breech would typically open automatically ejecting the spent shell casing after firing a breech handle was also located on the right side of the breech.
The 2pdr’s foot pedals: traverse gear on the right, fire pedal on the left (Matthew Moss)
The gun could be brought in and out of action in under a minute, including removing or replacing the road wheels. The 2pdr could, however, be fired from its road wheels, this was described as ‘emergency action’. The wheels limited the traversing arc of the gun and turns greater than 14 degrees right or 10 degrees left had to be done by lifting the gun’s trail and turning it manually. While less stable and accurate the gun could be brought into action from being towed in less than 20 seconds.
In 1939, the British Expeditionary Force to France embarked with 509 2pdrs. During the 1940 Battle for France the 2pdr was found to be an adequate anti-tank gun. One problem identified with the 2pdr was that its armour shield, designed to protect the crew, gave it a quite high profile making it easier to spot and more difficult to conceal.
A view of the breech and down the barrel of a 2pdr (Matthew Moss)
During the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation all of the guns brought to France were lost. 60% of Britain’s 2pdr Anti-Tank guns were left behind in France, just 333 guns which hadn’t accompanied the BEF remained. Many of the guns captured after the Dunkirk evacuations entered German service under the designation 4.0cm Pak 192(e).
As the thickness of enemy armour increased the 2pdr began to struggle. The German Panzer II had 1.2 inch thick frontal armour while the Panzer III more than doubled this to 2.8 inches. On paper at least the 2pdr, firing a APHV round, could penetrate up to 2.2 inches of armour at 500 yards (460m). But in reality the Panzer III was the last German tank the 2pdr could expect to engage with a decent chance of success. With the emergence of the later mark Panzer IV, with their 50mm or 2 inch thick frontal armour, they became much less effective. If not adequately concealed gun crews could expect to be engaged by AP and high explosive rounds from the Panzers at ranges outside their effective engagement range.
Despite this, however, the 2pdr proved to be a more than a match for Japanese tanks such as the Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks, which had armour less than an inch thick. At the Battle of Muar in Malaya, in January 1942, Australian 2pdrs, of the 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, knocked out six, of possibly eight or nine, Japanese tanks as they attacked up a road near Bakri. Sgt. Charles Parsons, commander of one of the guns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Interestingly. the Australians referred to the QF 2pdr AT Gun as the “Tank Attack 2pdr” apparently a designation common to Australian anti-tank weapons as they also called the PIAT the Projector, Infantry, Tank Attack.
The 2pdr remained capable of destroying heavier Japanese tanks too, the Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank had at 1 inch thick front armour which the 2pdr could easily penetrate at ranges of over 1,500 yards.
Photograph of knocked out Japanese Type 95 tanks during the Battle of Muar (Imperial War Museum)
Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the Australian 2/29th Battalion described the engagement during the Battle of Muar:
“A couple [of tanks] attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
In addition to being used as a towed anti-tank gun the QF 2pdr was used in a wide range of light and cruiser tanks, it provided the main armament for the Matilda II, the MKVII Tetrach light tank, the first six Marks of the Valentine infantry tank, the MKI & MKII Crusaders, the Cruiser Marks I to IV, the Covenanter tanks and it was also used in the Australian cruiser tank, the AC1 Sentinel.
It was also widely used to arm armoured cars including the Daimler, the MKI AEC, the MKI Coventry and the Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car. In the desert it was also mounted and operated simply on the back of adapted trucks – known as Portees. Trucks built by Chevrolet, Ford or Morris were all pressed into service to create Portees. The 2pdr was deployed on its tripod on the truck bed with its wheels removed. In this setup the guns became highly mobile with the crew able to operate the gun from the truck moving in and out of action rapidly. They were widely used in North Africa with a number of medals including a Victoria Cross being awarded to men who manned them.
Second Lieutenant George Ward Gunn, J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in November 1941 during Operation Crusader. Gunn commanded a troop of four Portee 2pdrs which engaged a German counter attach, with all but one of his guns knocked out and the remaining gun’s crew killed and the truck on fire, Lieutenant Gunn manned the gun himself, engaging the enemy at 800 yards, he managed to destroy two Panzers before he was killed.
The example we are examining began its life as a Mark IX but was subsequently upgraded into a Mk XA, capable of using a Littlejohn adaptor. The Littlejohn adapter used the squeezebore principle, the device was about a footlong with a smooth tapered bore. With the adaptor fitted to the muzzle of the 2pdr the round would be compressed by the taper going from 40mm to 30mm in diameter. This had the effect of increasing muzzle velocity giving the round a flatter trajectory and more energy. An armour-piercing, composite non-rigid round with a tungsten core was used, designated the APSV (from ‘armour-piercing super velocity’). It had the effect of almost doubling the muzzle velocity of the APSV round when compared to the original 2pdr AP shell. The adaptor was invented by Czech designer, František Janeček, the founder of the JAWA motorcycle company. The Mk I Littlejohn device entered production in January 1943 and the Mk II was approved in May 1944.
While design of the 6pdr anti-tank gun, the 2pdr’s replacement, had been completed by 1938, production of the gun did not begin until 1942. Following the huge losses at Dunkirk and with invasion believed to be imminent the decision was taken to focus on the 2pdr gun as its production line was already established. They remained in service throughout the war equipping anti-tank batteries and armoured vehicles. Over 34,000 2pdr anti-tank guns were produced between 1936 and 1944, over 11,000 of these were deployed as anti-tank guns on carriages while the rest were used in various vehicles.
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Overall Length: 135.5in or 343cm
Weight: 1,800lbs or 816kg
Action: Semi-automatic, hydrospring recoil buffer
Calibre: 2pdr or 40×304mmR
Elevation: -13 / +15 degrees
Traverse: 360 degrees
Rate of fire: 20 rounds per minute
Anti-Tank Weapons, T. Gander, (2000)
British Anti-Tank Artillery 1939-45, C. Henry (2004)
‘British equipment Losses at Dunkirk and the Post-Dunkirk Situation’, WWII Equipment.com, D. Boyd, (source)
2 Pounder Anti-Tank, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) training film, via AWM, (source)