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The “anti-tank crossbow”

A PIAT ready to fire in Italy in March 1944 (Photo: NARA)
A PIAT ready to fire in Italy in March 1944 (Photo: NARA)

While the current Russian attack against Ukraine is still raging and we learn about modern anti-tank weapons like the American Javelin or the British NLAW, we are going to look at some of the ancestors of these new weapons. The best-known man-portable anti-tank weapons of World War II were the American Bazooka (Read our earlier article – The Bazooka), the German Panzerfaust, and the Panzerschreck (Read our earlier article – The story of Adidas and Puma). In this article we are going to introduce a unique, lesser known, but still important British weapon of this kind: the PIAT, also known as Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank.
The need to develop such a weapon arose in the middle of the war. During the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force from France in 1940 (Read our earlier article – The “Miracle of Dunkirk”), the British lost a huge chunk of their equipment. They desperately needed something to fight tanks with in case of a German invasion. On top of that, their main anti-tank weapons became obsolete with the quick development of tanks. The Boys “Elephant Gun” anti-tank rifle, named after its inventor Captain Henry C. Boys, was a large rifle with insufficient armor penetration capability. The other weapon to be replaced was the weak and inaccurate No. 68 anti-tank rifle grenade. It also had to be cheap and easy to produce in great numbers. Since the British were known for unique experimental weapons (Read our earlier article – Hobart’s Funnies), the development resulted in the PIAT which was designed in 1942 and entered service in 1943.

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British soldiers training with a Boys anti-tank rifle in 1938 (Photo: IWM)

The original idea came from Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Blacker from the Royal Artillery. Among other weapons, he invented the platform-based Blacker Bombard which served as a basis for the smaller PIAT. The latter was eventually designed by Major Millis Jefferis a colleague of Blacker. It was a combination of the spigot mortar system and the hollow charge technology.

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Home Guard soldiers operate a 'Blacker Bombard' spigot mortar during training in 1943 (Photo: IWM)

The PIAT was a simple design, it was essentially made up of sheets of steel, the spigot mechanism, a huge spring, a shoulder pad, and a monopod. It used the spigot mortar system which meant that upon firing the spigot rod was pushed by the spring which ignited the propellant charge in the tail of the projectile. The spring’s other main purpose was to reduce the recoil of the weapon. Although it had padding to rest the shoulder, according to some accounts, it still had such a strong recoil that it could injure a soldier firing it. In addition, it had a strange cocking system similar to that of a crossbow. Soldiers had to step on the shoulder padding with both feet, turn and pull the weapon upwards to lock the spring. This was difficult to do in action, especially for shorter people. After firing the projectile, the detonation of the propellant charge pushed the spigot rod back which was supposed to automatically re-cock the weapon, but many times this did not happen. On top of that, the ammunition was known to be quite unreliable and often did not explode on impact (with a failure rate of around 25%). In order to enable better aiming, it had an adjustable monopod.

Cocking the PIAT (Photo: forum.enlisted.net)
Cocking the PIAT (Photo: forum.enlisted.net)

It had a quite short range of 115 yards (105 m) when used against tanks which made it necessary to get dangerously close to fire its 2.5 pound (1.1 kg) shaped charge bomb. The ammunition was able to penetrate an armor of 4 inches (100 mm), but its effectiveness was reduced when the Germans started to equip their tanks with Schürzen (“aprons”) skirts. These were thin metal plates protecting the sides of the hull and the turret, with some empty space between them and the "real" armor. These skirts destabilized the incoming projectile. In addition to its anti-tank role, it could be used against enemy fortifications to break through walls since it could also penetrate thick reinforced concrete. It proved useful to hunt down snipers from high positions like water towers or church steeples. Simply by turning the weapon upwards and placing it on the shoulder padding, it could be used as a light mortar.
Despite its drawbacks, it had many advantages compared to is counterparts. For instance, since it had no backblast and muzzle flash, it could be fired from concealed positions or from inside buildings without giving away the position of the PIAT or endangering fellow soldiers. It was somewhat lighter but much shorter than its predecessor, the Boys rifle. At the same time, it had twice the weight of the Bazooka. Every British platoon had a two-man PIAT team, but it could be operated by one soldier, too. Under normal conditions, the second team member carried the ammunition and reloaded the weapon.

A two-man PIAT team in action in Tunisia (Photo: IWM)
A two-man PIAT team in action in Tunisia (Photo: IWM)

The PIAT was used on all battlefields where British and other Commonwealth forces fought. At the same time, the British have sent them to the Soviets and to resistance movements in France, Poland, Greece, and Yugoslavia. The PIAT was first used in combat in Tunisia and Sicily. According to a British analysis of the time, during the first weeks of the D-Day landings 7% of destroyed German tanks were knocked out with PIATs. It played a crucial role even on D-Day itself when the glider-borne British paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division used them on the eastern flank of the landing beaches when they took and held two bridges on the river Orne and the Caen canal (the bridges were named later Pegasus and Horsa bridges after the paratroopers’ insignia and their gliders). It was vital to hold these bridges to prevent German reinforcements from attacking the bridgeheads of the invasion forces. The paratroopers had only one functional PIAT at hand. Luckily, they managed to blow up the first incoming German tank with a precise shot which made the rest of the Germans retreat and reorganize. At the same location, an unusual anti-ship usage of the PIAT occurred when two German gunboats approached the bridge on the Caen canal from the north. The boats opened fire on the paratroopers when the leading boat, VP212 Friedrich Busse, was knocked out by a British PIAT team. Its crew was taken prisoner. The second boat retreated to its base in Ouistreham.

The German gunboat knocked out with a PIAT at Pegasus bridge (Photo: sgmcaen.free.fr)
The German gunboat knocked out with a PIAT at Pegasus bridge (Photo: sgmcaen.free.fr)

During the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands in September 1944, outnumbered British airborne troops found it vital against German armor but there were simply too few of them. According to one of the British commanders, Major Richard Lonsdale, “the tragedy of the operation was the shortage and towards the end the complete lack of them…”

Germans testing a captured PIAT in 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Germans testing a captured PIAT in 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Due to its short range, the PIAT team had to get dangerously close to its target. This bravery was reflected in the high number of Victoria Crosses and other decorations awarded to Commonwealth soldiers using the PIAT during WWII. Let’s have a quick look at some of the stories behind the six Victoria Crosses awarded. During the Italian Campaign in May 1944, Fusilier Frank Jefferson repelled a German counterattack by destroying a German Panzer IV tank. On D-Day, Company Sergeant-Major Stanley Hollis, among his other heroic deeds that day, used a PIAT against German fortifications and saved the lives of several fellow soldiers. The same month in Burma, Ghurka Rifleman Ganju Lama disabled two Japanese tanks with his PIAT and, despite his injuries, attacked the Japanese tankers fleeing from the wreckages of their tanks.

Fusilier Frank Jefferson and a PIAT with a knocked-out StuG III at Monte Cassino, May 1944 (Photo: IWM)
Fusilier Frank Jefferson and a PIAT with a knocked-out StuG III at Monte Cassino, May 1944 (Photo: IWM)

Despite the PIAT’s disadvantages, its main characteristics made it a highly efficient anti-tank weapon. Altogether 115,000 were produced between 1942 and 1950. It was replaced with the American M20 “Super Bazooka” in the 1950s. Before its retirement, it was used in the Korean War. They were deployed also during the First Indochina War between 1946-1954. Both warring parties, the French and the Việt Minh, used them against each other (the Vietnamese forces captured them from the French). The Israeli armed forces used them in the 1947-1949 Palestine war against Arab armies.

Việt Minh soldiers using a PIAT (Photo: Reddit)
Việt Minh soldiers using a PIAT (Photo: Reddit)

The PIAT features in several blockbuster war movies. We will mention a couple of examples in chronological order. It appeared for the first time in the 1946 war film Theirs is the glory which was an accurate depiction of the Battle of Arnhem during Operation Market Garden. It was shot at the actual location with the director, writer and many of the actors being veterans themselves. The 1962 blockbuster The Longest Day, also showed the weapon in action when Free French Forces attack a German position at Ouistreham. Another good example is the classic movie A Bridge too far from 1977. It featured the famous line from actor Sir Anthony Hopkins, “Bring up the PIAT!” when British paratroopers are trying to hold the Arnhem bridge from attacking German tanks. The last two movies were both based on the books of historian Cornelius Ryan. You can also use the PIAT in several video games, such as Medal of Honor.

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“Bring up the PIAT!” – a snippet from the movie A Bridge too far (Video: Youtube)

One can still find some of them at museums, for instance at the Pegasus Bridge Memorial in Normandy. You can even buy one at auctions. At a Rock Island auction in October 2021, an original PIAT got sold for $2,070.

A PIAT on display along with other British weapons at the Pegasus Bridge Memorial (Photo: Author’s own)
A PIAT on display along with other British weapons at the Pegasus Bridge Memorial (Photo: Author’s own)

22% discount on all tours until June 6

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D-Day anniversary celebrations in Normandy, 2019 (Photo: Author's own)

We'll be celebrating the 78th anniversary of D-Day, the historic Allied landings in Normandy, in only 10 days. On the occasion of the 78th anniversary, we offer you the option to only pay 78% of the list price on any of our European World War II tours, regardless of where or when you want to go. This year, next year, or even for the 80-year anniversary tours in 2024 – you only pay 78% of the normal price as long as you book and pay in full by June 6. Or to put it in other words, you're eligible for a 22% discount if you book by June 6, 2022.

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