The revolutionary weapon that transformed anti-tank fighting in the final battles of WWII.
After the first model was introduced in July 1943, the Germans manufactured a total of 8 million Panzerfausts (meaning ‘tank fist’) during the final two years of the Second World War. Simple in design and cheap to make, they could be mass produced. Easy to operate, they required no specialist crews, but could be issued to anyone like grenades. Nazi propaganda towards the end of the war boasted about Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) teenagers, Volksturm (Home Guard) old-timers, and even German housewives using them. They were especially effective in close-quarters fighting in the rubble of bombed cities.
The most widely used model was the Panzerfaust 60, introduced in September 1944. Weighing something over 6kg, it comprised a thin, disposable, preloaded launch-tube about a metre long, fitted with an outsize explosive warhead of about 150mm diameter. It had a range of around 60m and could penetrate up to 200mm of tank armour.
For firing, the weapon was rested on the shoulder or under the arm, at which point the sight, otherwise folded down against the tube, would be flipped up for aiming. The operator had to ensure that he and his comrades were safe from the extreme back blast when the trigger was pulled. For this reason, the weapons, usually painted dark yellow ochre, were labelled in red on the tube ‘Danger! Intense fire-flash!’.
In the final year of the war, facing a massive preponderance of Allied armour, artillery, and airpower, German tactics became heavily defensive. German commanders aimed to draw their opponents into close terrain and to fight both from prepared positions and with mobile teams. The latter included specialist ‘tank-hunter teams’ (Panzerjagdgruppe) equipped with Panzerfausts.
Supported by riflemen, who would guard against enemy infantry and shoot up enemy tank crew if they emerged from the hatches, the tank-hunters would aim to circle a tank, move in close, and then fire from different directions, hoping to hit where armour was thinner.
Panzerfausts claimed a steadily rising proportion of tank kills. In Normandy, it is estimated that only around 6% of British tank losses were to Panzerfaust fire, but the proportion rose to around a third later in the war, whilst Soviet tank losses from both Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks (the German equivalent of the American bazooka) reached 70%.
Allied tank crews became exceptionally nervous about close-quarters fighting in built-up areas. Tanks were fitted with additional armour, and infantry platoons were assigned to tank companies to protect them from ambushes.
The Panzerfaust became an iconic weapon: for the Nazis, a symbol of dogged, last-ditch resistance; for the Allies, one of the deadliest threats they faced as the war in Europe reached a crescendo of violence with the storming of the Third Reich in the winter and spring of 1945.