You Had to Be Pretty Brave to Attack a German Tank With a PIAT
Get close, stand up, brace for recoil
In 1941, Britain developed the Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank, better known as the PIAT. The PIAT would become Britain’s primary anti-tank weapon during World War II.
The British had struggled to field an effective anti-tank weapon for infantry. In 1940, the British Army had introduced the No. 68 anti-tank rifle grenade — but it lacked penetrating power. Likewise, the .55-caliber Boys anti-tank rifle, introduced in 1937, couldn’t punch through the thicker German armor of the early 1940s.
The PIAT finally gave British and Allied infantry the means to defeat Axis armor. But the weapon required considerable courage to use effectively.
The PIAT was actually an evolution of the 29-millimeter Spigot Mortar, known as the Blacker Bombard after its inventor Lt. Col. Stewart Blacker. Blacker developed what he called the “Baby Bombard” — a man-portable, shoulder-fired weapon that lobbed a hollow-charge bomb with a propellant charge in the tail.
The Baby Bombard was not a rocket-launcher. At its base it had a large spring attached to a spigot. When the weapon fired, the spring released, forcing the spigot into the base of the bomb and projecting it out of the weapon.
Imperial War Museum photo
The War Office reviewed the Baby Bombard in June 1941. Initial testing proved disappointing. When Blacker moved on to other duties, Maj. Millis Jefferis — an explosives expert and skilled engineer at the Ministry of Defense’s research and development establishment MD1 — continued developing the Baby Bombard.
Jefferis redesigned the Baby Bombard, rechristening it the “Jefferis Shoulder Gun.” The weapon was 39 inches long and weighed 32 pounds. The British Army adopted it in the summer of 1942, following successful testing by the Ordnance Board — redesignating it PIAT in the process.
PIAT production began in August 1942. It first saw action in the summer of 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. and other manufacturers produced approximately 115,000 PIATs during the war.
Unlike a rocket launcher, the PIAT didn’t have to withstand high pressures and could be made from inexpensive sheet steel. The weapon benefited from a lack of muzzle flash and relatively little report, in contrast to flashy, noisy American bazookas and German Panzerfausts.
The PIAT’s main drawbacks were its heavy recoil, problems cocking the weapon and the fragile sheet steel it was made from.
In terms of range and armor-penetration, the PIAT was adequate. The three-pound projectile could penetrate in excess of 100 millimeters of armor from 100 meters. Optimally, the projectile would achieve a muzzle velocity of approximately 450 feet per second. The shooter aimed using an aperture sight.
Imperial War Museum photo
In theory, each British Army infantry platoon received one PIAT. Mechanized units installed the launcher on Bren carriers. It could be operated by one man but was normally crewed by two — a gunner and an ammunition-carrier and loader. The PIAT was popular in airborne units, as it offered high firepower at low weight.
The PIAT needed to be manually cocked before the first shot. Theoretically, the recoil from firing would then re-cock it for subsequent shots. Cocking was achieved by compressing a large spring within the body of the launcher. This was difficult to do without standing up and exposing oneself to enemy fire.
To ready the PIAT to fire, the operator would stand the PIAT on its butt, hold it firmly and twist the weapon to disconnect the shoulder pad and spring. By standing on the shoulder pad and pulling the body of the weapon up, the spigot — which acted as the firing pin — and spring compressed and attached to the trigger mechanism, cocking the weapon. The operator then slid the body back down to the shoulder pad and re-latched it before placing a projectile in the tray at the front of the weapon.
The draw weight of the PIAT equaled 90 kilograms of spring tension, making the PIAT difficult to operate for smaller, shorter soldiers.
Britain, Canada, Australia and the other Commonwealth countries all used the PIAT. In Australian service it was designated “Projector Infantry Tank Attack,” or PITA. The British also air-dropped PIATs to resistance fighters in occupied Europe. The French resistance used them, as did Polish fighters during the Warsaw Uprising.
Due to its limited range, firing the PIAT in combat required a certain amount of courage. Six men were awarded the Victoria Cross for using PIATs to destroy German tanks. During the battle for Arnhem in 1944, Maj. Robert Cain of 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment won a V.C. after using a PIAT to immobilize a German Stug assault gun and force three Panzer IVs to retreat.
In Italy in October 1944, Pvt. Ernest Smith used a PIAT to destroy a German Mark V Panther tank. He also received a V.C. Seven percent of all tanks destroyed by British forces during the D-Day campaigned were knocked out by PIATs.
The PIAT saw action during the 1948 Israeli war of independence and the Korean War. In the 1950s, rocket launchers and rifle-grenades finally replaced the PIAT.