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Bazooka Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher

Edward G. Uhl died on 09 May 2010 in Easton, MD at age 92. His death was reported 16 May 2010. Uhl helped invent the bazooka, the devastatingly effective weapon used against German tanks during World War II. The idea of using small rockets on the battlefield had been demonstrated by Robert Goddard in 1918. The idea of using a shaped charge warhead to defeat armored vehicles had been demonstrated by several inventors, including the Swiss inventor Henry Hans Mohaupt. Uhl's contribution was to launch a rocket, with a shaped charge warhead, from a long tube that provided accurate guidance at long range.

The most popular antitank weapon introduced during World War II was the 2.36-inch rocket-firing Bazooka. For the first time, this enabled the foot soldier to combat a tank single-handedly. The bazooka was so called because of its resemblance to a musical instrument improvised by a popular radio comedian of the time. It was a 54-inch steel tube of 2.36-inch diameter, designed to be operated by two men. It was open at both ends and, by means of hand grips, a trigger and a simple sight, enabled the infantryman to launch anti-tank rockets.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower is said to have once identified the Bazooka as one of four things that won World War II for the allies. The others were the C-47, Jeep and Atom Bomb. The Bazooka Rocket Launcher was called by the Chief of Ordnance in 1943 the "most impressive small arms development of the year."

There were three recognized progenitors of our modern space age. The first was a Russian, Konstantin Ziolkovsky, whose proposal for spaceships was published in 1903. Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard followed with the classic, "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," in 1919. Then, in 1923, the German, Dr. Hermann Oberth, published his study, "The Rocket into Interplanetary space." Goddard was the only one to personally put his theory into practice, starting about 1914 when he was a physics instructor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. During World War I, one of Goddard's developments was the prototype of the World War II bazooka.

Goddard started working with rockets in 1915 when he tested solid fueled models. In 1917 when the US entered World War I, he worked on perfecting rockets as weapons. A rocket uses gas pressure from rapidlyburning material (propellant) to propel a payload (warhead) to adesired location. Rockets can range from 1 (3.8 cm) to more than 15 in (38.1 cm) in diameter, and can vary from 1 ft (.3 m) to over 9 ft (2.8 m) in length. All rockets consist of a warhead section and a motor section. Rockets are unguided after launch and are stabilized during flight by fins attached to the motor section or by canted nozzles built into the base of the motor section.

Goddard developed and demonstrated the basic idea of the "bazooka" two days before the Armistice in 1918 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. One of his designs was a tube launched, recoilless missile, 18 inches long and one inch in diameter. His launching platform was a music rack. Dr. Clarence N. Hickman, a young Ph.D. from Clark University, worked with Goddard in 1918 provided continuity to the research that produced the World War II bazooka. After the Armistice the Army's interest in Goddard's work languished, but it never altogether died.

Military interest in antitank weapons lagged with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918 and was destined to remain so for over 20 years. Meanwhile, armor improvements proceeded so rapidly that available anti-tank weapons were soon found lacking i n both penetration and range. At the outbreak of World War II, the Germans, whose tanks of the previous war were failures, possessed vast numbers of improved tanks with which they overran Poland in 1939 and northern France in 1940. The startingly new tactical use of tanks in these blitzkriegs demanded a complete reconsideration of defensive measures, particularly of antitank weapons for the infantry.

The discoverers of the modern shaped charge were Franz Rudolf Thomanek for Germany and the Swiss inventor Henry Hans Mohaupt for the UK and the US. Mohaupt independently developed and introduced the shaped-charge concept to the US. The Mohaupt grenade drew its special effectiveness from the shaped- or hollow-charge principle discovered by American physicist Charles E. Munroe as early as 1880: shaping a high explosive with a hollow cone at the forward end focuses the explosive to yield greater penetration per unit weight. Initially the Mohaupt grenade was fired from a spigot launcher resembling a mortar, which did not permit accurate aiming.

Mohaupt's earliest patent claimed a date of 9 November 1939. He used liner cavity charges to design practical military devices. The early studies concentrated on a shaped-charge rifle grenade. Unlike existing antitank rounds, which depended on speed and mass to create the energy to penetrate, Mohaupt's shaped charge would work even when it made contact with the target at a relatively slow speed. Thus the warhead could be fired from smaller less powerful weapons, making it perfect for use by foot soldiers.

After about a year's development, it was introduced into British Service in November 1940 as the No. 68 grenade. Thus, the British were equipped with the world's first hollow-charge, anti-tank rifle grenade. The British concluded in 1942 that the bazooka was unsuitable for desert warfare, since the desert provided none of the concealment, such as trees or bushes, that the bazooka operator needed to hide him from small-arms fire until the tank came close enough for his rocket to be effective. Therefore they decided, reluctantly, not to employ bazookas in the Middle East.

In 1941 the US Ordnance Department returned to the recoilless gun as an instrument for launching the Mohaupt grenade. The US accepted the program, classified it, and thus excluded Mohaupt from the program but produced the 2.36-in high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) machine gun grenade and the 75- and 105-mm HEAT artillery projectiles in 1941. During a demonstration at Aberdeen Proving Ground in May 1942 the bazooka proved that at very close ranges it could penetrate the 50-mm. armor plate of a German Pzkw III tank.

In prewar America, a West Point ordnance officer, Maj. Leslie A. Skinner, was responsible for the Army's rocket program. The Army had assigned him to its new rocket research group of the National Defense Research Committee in Washington, DC, in 1940. Money for projects never filtered down, however, nor did guidance as to what he was supposed to develop. Skinner benefited from the work of Robert H. Goddard. Unlike Goddard, who had demonstrated a rocket gun at the end of World War I, Skinner and Edward G. Uhl unveiled their invention at a more opportune time. In a private workshop, on their own time, the pair created the bazooka, the first workable US military-produced rocket. Uhl, a recent graduate of Lehigh University, had a thorough grounding in physics and engineering. Despite Hickman's high interest, the Army rocket program remained a relatively low priority with a miniscule budget. Uhl, for example, would first search the Powder Factory's scrap heap whenever he needed some metal. While rummaging through the scrap pile behind his workshop, Uhl came upon a 5-foot length of metal pipe that proved just wide enough to accept a 60-mm. round.

Within months of U.S. involvement in World War II, the Army adopted, produced and fielded the 2.36-inch-diameter, shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket and tube launcher. The first troops to receive it called it "the Buck Rogers gun."

At the first test firing of the rocket grenade, the firing tube was dubbed the bazooka after the humorous musical instrument which entertainer Bob Burns had fashioned from two gas pipes and a funnel in the 1930s. Suggestions that it was named because of the sound it made when fired appear less well established. Topps developed its Bazooka Bubble Gum product in Brooklyn, New York after World War II ended. Bazooka is also famous for the popular series of Bazooka Joe comics, first introduced in 1953 to add extra interest for youngsters.

Initially known only under the code name of THE WHIP, the bazooka was a shoulder projector launching an effective 2.36-inch antitank rocket. For the first time in history a foot soldier had a weapon specifically designed to penetrate armor. The rocket included the hollow-charge antitank principle. The destructive power of the combat arms -- infantry, armor, and artillery -- greatly increased in World War II. Infantry carried its own antitank weapons in the form of the American 2.36 inch Bazooka rocket launcher.

At the first demonstration in Washington, DC, in May 1942, Soviet observers had requested bazookas. Consequently, a large shipment arrived in the USSR about the same time as the arrival of the shipment to Egypt. The Red Army was supplied with this weapon to use on the Eastern Front against the Germans. Later in 1942, the Germans captured an American bazooka from the Soviets very soon thereafter, and from it developed the larger and more effective Panzershrek antitank rocket launcher -- the German version fired a 7.3lb rocket around 165 yards. The first such weapon to be used in battle was the German Faustpatrone or Panzerfaust appearing in the fall of 1942.

The British PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Antitank) and the German Panzerfaust used the shaped charge propelled by a small conventional charge, similar to that of a grenade launcher. This small, recoilless gun with about 30m of range (later 60m) was very effective against allied tanks. In one case a small group of determined German soldiers delayed an advancing squadron of British tanks for 4 hours. The tankers would not advance untilassured that all the panzerfausts were destroyed. The Panzerfaust could effectively engage armored vehicles at a range of fifty meters, a considerable improvement in stand-off compared to a thrown antitank grenade.

The Soviets were quick to use this design in the development of the RPG-1, which was basically a direct copy of the German weapon, and introduced in latter years of the war.

James M. Gavin was a colonel in the 505th Parachute Infantry of the 82d Airborne Division when his troops first used bazookas in Sicily in 1943. Expressing the men's disappointment, he wrote: "As for the 82d Airborne Division, it did not get adequate antitank weapons until it began to capture the first German Panzerfausts. By the fall of 1944 we had truckloads of them. We also captured German instructions for their use, made translations, and conducted our own training with them. They were the best hand-carried antitank weapon of the war."

The same type of warhead enabled the Germans and Americans to develop experimental low-velocity recoilless rifles, which were light artillery pieces that eliminated the recoil by a controlled release of propellant blast behind the gun. Although recoilless rifles and rocket launchers lacked the long range and accuracy of conventional artillery, they gave the infantry, and indeed any unit, a much greater firepower and capability for organic short-range anti-tank defense.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:42:16 ZULU