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M20 3.5-Inch Rocket Launcher (Bazooka)

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, in "Guerrilla Warfare" [written in 1961], noted: "The bazooka is a heavy weapon that can be used by the guerrilla band because of its easy portability and operation. ... Naturally, it will be a weapon taken from the enemy. The bazooka is ideal for firing on armored vehicles, and even on unarmored vehicles that are loaded with troops, and for taking small military bases of few men in a short time; but it is important to point out that not more than three shells per man can be carried, and this only with considerable exertion. ... the bazooka .. for the guerrilla force is a decisive weapon but difficult to acquire, at least in the first stages."

The best known allied hand held antitank weapon of the war was the Bazooka, a 2.36" rocket launcher firing a shaped charge mounted on a rocket. Initially it met with excellent results but by 1945 could not penetrate the newer German tanks. After World War II the defeat of armored vehicles was made progressively more difficult by steady increases in the thickness and obliquities of armor in hulls and turrets, development of better fabrication techniques, the curving of armored surfaces to defeat projectiles, and the introduction of new types of armor. Because of these improvements the weapon-ammunition combinations that could penetrate the armor of World War II tanks could seldom pierce the armor of later models. A radically new series of anti-tank weapons had to be developed. These improved weapons were to be capable of increased armor penetration, greater accuracy, and higher kill probabilities. In addition, it was essential that tanks be destroyed, not simply immobilized or put out of action by damage that could later be repaired.

To obtain antitank weapons with these characteristics, effort was first concentrated on the improvement of existing conventional weapons, such as antitank guns, bazooka-type rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and rifle grenades. In October 1948, the Conference on Antitank Defense at Port Monroe, Virginia, discussed at length the threat of enemy armor to airborne operations and agreed that new antitank weapons were needed to counteract it. The Army Equipment Development Guide (AEDG) of 1950 specified an urgent requirement for a manportable antitank weapon for front line units to replace the 2.36 and 3.5-inch rocket launchers and the 57mm recoilless rifle.

On June 25, 1950, the North Korea People's Army executed a surprise invasion of the poorly prepared Republic of Korea (ROK) and overwhelmed the ROK Army. President Harry S. Truman authorized reinforcement of the ROK Army by U.S. Army units stationed in Japan. American defenders faced overwhelming enemy forces outside Osan, South Korea - fewer than 600 Americans with mortars versus some 6,000 North Koreans with dozens of tanks. They described how they lacked the right weapons - their bazooka shells literally bounced off the oncoming North Korean tanks. The heavy armor plating on the T-34 ranged from 0.79 inches to 3.54 inches.

During World War II, Picatinny Arsenal had produced bombs and artillery shells, while also developing new fuzes, mines, grenades and special purpose bombs such as those used against dams and oil fields. The Americans captured copies of German v rocket launchers and began designing a larger version of the M9, later designated the M20 Super Bazooka, in late 1944. However, the M20 did not see active service before World War II ended. During the Korean War, Picatinny Arsenal developed a new 3.5-inch bazooka for use as an anti-tank weapon. This much-improved 3.5-inch rocket launcher was under development when the war broke out, but not yet in the hands of the troops.

The M20 3.5-Inch Rocket Launcher (Bazooka), although on the drawing board since the end of World War II, had not been put into production due to cutbacks in defense spending. The rockets had been in production only 15 days before the Korean War started. None of the newer, more effective 3.5-inch launchers in the Army inventory had been issued to Far East units. The upgraded 3.5" version quickly entered service to fill the gap and remained in service for a number of years.

Supplies of these weapons were airlifted into Korea and issued to the 24th Infantry Division by July 11, 1950, which was too late to assist Task Force Smith. But the new rocket launchers proved a welcome addition to the infantryman's arsenal. After relieving the 24th Infantry Division, the 1st Cavalry Division received some of the 24th Division's 3.5s with ammunition. Although in short supply in the first weeks of the war, the 1st Cavalry Division's organic antitank weapons proved capable of successfully engaging and destroying the NKPA T-34 tanks.

The larger M20 was ordered into production and the manuals were hastily written by the weapons department at Fort Benning in just two weeks. It is a measure of the speed with which the Americans could react that, within five days of MacArthur's request for the new launchers, the first batch was airlifted to Korea, accompanied by instructors. The new and highly effective 3.5-inch bazooka reached Korea while the battle for Taejon was raging. The 24th Division received the first consignment of the new 3.5-inch anti-tank rocket launcher. The weapon was flown to Korea and was credited with knocking out eight T34 tanks on the first day it was used in combat. On 20 July 1950, the second day of the battle, a number of North Korean tanks entered the city without infantry support. The 3.5-inch bazookas, used in battle for the first time, accounted for 8 tanks.

Major General William F. Dean, commander of the 24th Infantry Division during the early stages of the Korean War, personally used the newly arrived 3.5-inch bazooka against the enemy's T-34 tanks. Dean languished as a POW for almost two more years and was not repatriated until September 4, 1953, a week after the Armistice. Dean was surprised to learn that he had been regarded as a hero in the United States ever since his disappearance. The American government had awarded him the first Medal of Honor for service in the Korean War for his personal bravery with the 24th Division at Taejon.

These rocket launchers were placed into the eager hands of the infantry as rapidly as they could be flown to the front from the US. The troops found the 3.5-inch bazooka to be an effective close-range antitank weapon. Firing a nine-pound rocket with a shaped charge designed to focus its full force forward in a jet, it could and did stop North Korean tanks. There were neither weapons nor troops enough, however, to hold the communists.

The North Korean People's Army (NKPA), particularly early in the war, failed to send infantry along with its tanks in the attack. As a result, once the United States and Republic of Korea Army (ROKA, South Koreans) obtained the 3.5-inch bazooka rocket launcher, communist tank losses soared. This, coupled with heavy armor losses from United Nations Command (UNC) air attacks, ended the threat of NKPA armor.

Described by one Infantry officer as "The answer to a rifleman's prayer for a tank killer.," the 3.5 was so effective that it was decided not to limit its use to battalion level but to extend it to the rifle company as well. A new TOE dated 15 May 1952, authorized three of these "superbazookas" and placed them in the rifle platoon headquarters. The 3.5 bazooka effectively eliminated the 57mm recoilless by providing about the same power and effectiveness in a lighter package.

By the Korean War, the 3.5-inch rocket launcher had replaced the 2.36-inch rocket launcher. The M72 Light Antitank Weapon (LAW) began replacing the Bazooka and anti-tank rifle grenade in 1963.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:45:50 ZULU