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M9A1 2.36" Rocket Launcher (Bazooka)

As large-scale combat involving armored vehicles became common on the Eastern Front, weapons to counter this threat were quickly developed. In the urban environments of the USSR, the Soviets began using Molotov cocktails as improvised antitank weapons. Antitank hand grenades were soon developed and fielded to provide some offensive capability against tanks. Though effective, the antitank hand grenades had serious limitations. Their range was limited by the strength of soldier throwing them. They might explode on the target. or bounce off and detonate near it without effect. As the armor on tanks improved, the grenades got larger and larger, out of necessity, and often had a burst radius that out-distanced the range a soldier could throw it. Also, the soldiers had to get close enough to a tank to engage it - not a technique for the faint of heart!

By April 1942, the US Ordnance Department, had developed the 2.36-inch "bazooka," which fired a 3.4lb rocket with a shaped-charge warhead to a range of 400 yards. A reusable metal tube acted as a launcher for a percussion fired, short range antitank warhead.

In June 1942 the Ordnance Department standardized a 2.36-inch model of the rocket and launcher. The M1 rocket launcher first saw action with U.S. troops in November 1942 in North Africa during Operation Torch. In the Tunisian campaign that followed, unreliable ammunition reduced the effectiveness of the bazooka. Introduced into battle in Tunisia, the bazooka was sufficiently troublesome to German tanks that the enemy soon began fitting Pzkw IVs with wire-mesh anti-rocket screens and eventually put solid metal covering skirts over the vulnerable bogey wheels. But the bazooka, like American antitank guns, was too small. It could not penetrate the heavy front armor of the German tanks. It demanded careful aim against soft spots, which was no easy chore for an exposed, nervous infantryman when a massive German tank came looming up so close upon him that he could hear the pulsating squeak of the bogies.

The M6 fin-stabilized high explosive antitank (HEAT) rocket weighed 3.5 pounds, had a maximum range of 700 yards, and could perforate 3.5 inches of homogeneous armor at an obliquity of zero. Both the rocket and the launcher had to undergo a number of improvements to make the combination a more potent weapon. In late 1943, the Army introduced the M9 version of the bazooka with a more powerful rocket-the M6A3. Under the impetus of wartime programs, the initial M1 Bazooka launcher was superseded in December 1943 by the M9, which was slightly longer and 3 pounds heavier. Battlefield use determined the need for adding back-blast deflectors and piano wire wrapped reinforcement to protect against exploding within the tube. Generators replaced batteries in the firing mechanism and the forward hand grip was eliminated. Finally in late 1943 the take-apart M9 launcher was produced. Efforts to improve the 2.36-inch HEAT rocket began in the summer of 1944 and were still in progress when the war ended. In April 1945, the M9 was replaced by the Ml8, a two-piece aluminum launcher which weighed only 10.3 pounds. The United States did not initiate a project for a more powerful, 3.5-inch rocket until August 1944.

General George Patton dictated his reflections shortly before his auto accident on December 9, 1945:

"Pillboxes were attacked by the use of prearranged groups. A satisfactory group consisted of two BARs, a bazooka, a light machine gun, two to four riflemen, and two men with the demolition charge. The best results were obtained by a silent night attack which places the assault groups in position close to their respective pillboxes at dawn. The apertures are immediately taken under fire and silenced. When this is achieved the demolition charge, covered by riflemen and light machine guns, was placed against the door at the rear of the pillbox; the fuse is lit, and the men withdraw around the corner of the building. As soon as the charge is exploded riflemen throw in grenades -- preferably phosphorus. Any enemy emerging were killed or captured according to the frame of mind of the enemy.

"Street fighting is simply a variation of pillbox fighting. A similar group, but reinforced with more riflemen, is effective. The additional riflemen are split on opposite sides of the street so as to take under fire enemy personnel appearing in the upper stories on the side across from them. When a house offers resistance the windows are silenced by fire as in the case of pillboxes, and under cover of this immunity a bazooka crew fires one or two rounds at the corner of the house, about three feet from the ground. When a hole has been made by this means, phosphorus or HE grenades are thrown into the lower floor and cellar to discourage those operating there."

In comparison with the 57mm gun and the self-propelled tank destroyer, the bazooka had performed extremely well. The General Board of the European Theater noted, however, that the primary function of the bazooka had been as an assault weapon and the secondary function had been as an antitank weapon. Although a 3.5-inch bazooka had been introduced toward the end of the war to replace the 2.36-inch weapon, and a recoilless rifle had also been developed during the war, there was no move to designate either of these weapons as a primary antitank weapon.

It was not a foolproof tank killer, but it was the only individual weapon that gave an infantryman a fighting chance against enemy armor. Capt. Murray S. Pulver, who destroyed three panzers in Normandy, later remarked, "I always swore by the bazooka and it never let me down." Fifteen American soldiers and one marine received Medals of Honor in World War II for their courage in using a bazooka against the enemy.

During World War II, it had become apparent that the bazooka was not effective against the new armored tanks. A new bazooka, the 3.5 inch M-20, was on the drawing board to replace it, but defense cuts had stopped production. Besides, many leaders in the US felt that with the atomic bomb, the Air Force, and the Navy, there would be no real need to upgrade US Infantry equipment. Korea was to prove how wrong this assumption was. It was to cost many young men their lives!

The standard issue antitank weapon for infantry units was the 2.36-inch rocket launcher, commonly referred to as the bazooka. The 2.36" version continued in use until the first months of the Korean War. Here, due to ineffective ammunition, and inadequate training they could not defeat the Communist T-34's. The effectiveness of antitank weapons was a common explanation of why US Army performance initially failed to meet expectations in Korea. This weapon proved to be totally ineffective against NKPA T-34 tanks, causing considerable fear among U.S. soldiers. The 2.36-inch Bazooka of World War II failed to effectively penetrate the armor of the Soviet-built tanks used by the North Koreans and Chinese.

With the North Koreans flooding down, Task Force Smith, approximately one half a battalion combat team, was detached from the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division and rushed by air to Pusan. It was loaded onto trucks and pushed up near Osan to block the road south of Seoul. They held the road for about seven hours, losing 185 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Two rifle companies, a battery of 105-mm howitzers, two 4.2-inch mortar platoons, a platoon of 75-mm recoilless rifles, and six attached teams equipped with World War II-type 2.36-inch bazookas.

Task Force Smith totaled about 440 men plus a battalion and headquarters of the 24th ID, and a battery of six 105-mm howitzers. At about 7 am, still in the rain, North Korean tanks could clearly be seen advancing along the road towards the Task Force position. A fire mission was called for from the 105-mm battery, but the T-34 tanks kept coming. When the leading tanks approached to within 700 yards of the Americans, they were engaged by the 75-mm RCLs, but although hits were seen, the tanks did not stop. As they rumbled on, they came under fire from the 2.36-inch bazooka anti-tank launcher teams. These did not stop them either. One officer fired 22 rounds at about 15 yards range against the rear of the tanks where their armor is weakest, but to no effect. The heavy armor plating on the T-34 ranged from 0.79 inches to 3.54 inches. Within an hour, 33 tanks had passed through the Task Force position in two waves.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:47:06 ZULU