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The 8,8cm R PzB 54 with its small mother, the US M1 Rocket Launcher

Ein Kriegskind
"A child of war". The history of the Panzerschreck is fascinating since it was developed as an entirely new weapon system and fielded in less than 6 months. The following text was printed in the "Von der Front für die Front" issued on 6 June 1944 by the Oberkommando des Heeres (translated by myself...).

Important notes about the Panzerschreck (Ofenrohr)
The following has been reported by the Heereswaffenamt: With the fielding of the R Pz B 54 (also called Ofenrohr) a huge amount of suggestions for improvements of the weapon has been received from the units. The Panzerschreck is a "child of war". The development of the weapon had to be done very fast, in order to give the units a simple but good weapon to fight against tanks as fast as possible. To avoid a delay in the distribution of the weapon certain shortcomings is the price to pay. The need for a gasmask in order to protect the firer from the rearward flying powder particles during the firing is just one example.

Development and history
By 1943 the pre-war anti-tank rifles had all gone out of fashion as their combat value was all gone. The same was happening to the towed Anti-Tank guns, which were heavy, cumbersome and slow to move, expensive and just not very efficient at all. They all fired a standard Armour Piercing (AP) round that depended on the mass-energy (weight of projectile combined with velocity) to break through armour. Development of the tanks showing up on the battlefield in 1943 had taken this into consideration, and thicker armour combined with sloping sides made it a tough job to kill a tank with an AT gun or a PAK (Panzer Abwehr Kanone). The shaped-charge principle was well known at the time, and the Germans used it for demolition charges and magnetic anti-tank charges. It was not possible to use in a grenade delivered from a rifled barrel though, as the spin of the grenade needed to stabilize it in its flight would remove the effect of the shaped-charge when it impacted. In late 1942/early 1943 German engineers developed a new AT weapon that would use the shaped-charge principle in a High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) fin-stabilized grenade propelled by a rocket motor. The system developed was called the Raketenwerfer 43, "Puppchen". It fired a HEAT grenade from a closed breech and was mounted on a carriage that could help absorb the recoil

29 "Raketenwerfer 43" captured by the Red Army

The grenade was designated 8,8cm Raketen Panzer Granat 4312 (8,8cm R Pz Gr 4312) and was fired using a percussion cap to ignite the rocket motor. During flight it was stabilized by fins contained within a drum on the tail section.

The flange at the rear end is in fact a very short casing that contained the primer and would ensure that the gases didn't escape to the rear but all contributed to the propulsion of the grenade.

It was a common misconception that the Puppchen fired the same grenades as the Raketen Panzer Büchse 54 that was developed at the same time. A switch between the two weapons would be entirely impossible as they used different ignition systems and had a different tailfin. The misconception is mostly due to the fact that captured examples of the Raketenwerfer 43 seldom had any ammunition, while the similar looking Raketen Panzer Büchse 54 ammunition seems to have been readily available. Note that the US soldier above is holding the longer RPzBGr 4322 for the Raketen Panzer Büchse 54.

US "Garritroopers" inspect captured Puppchens. Note the presence of the wrong ammunition in both pictures!

When German and US forces clashed together in Tunisia in early 1943 the Germans captured some of the newly invented US M1 Rocket Launchers (later nicknamed "Bazooka") with ammunition.  These were promptly sent back to Germany for further studies. During a demonstration of the newly developed Faustpatrone (Panzerfaust) for the Heereswaffenamt in Kummersdorf in March 1943 one of the captured US M1 Rocket Launchers was demonstrated, and it was decided to develop a German copy. 

US M1 Rocket Launcher with ammunition captured in Tunis and presented by the Heereswaffenamt at Kummersdorf

The obvious advantages over the already developed Puppchen were clear. A shoulder held tube could do the same job at 1/10 of the weight and a fraction of the manufacturing cost, labour hours and raw materials. The Puppchen had been under development since the autumn of 1942 and was ready for frontline service in September 1943. Orders for mass production had already been placed, and a number of 3150 examples were manufactured from September 1943 to February 1944. Further orders were cancelled in favour of the new anti-tank weapon based on the US design.

The German engineers made three important changes to the US M1 rocket Launcher. First of all the calibre was increased to 8,8cm. As the 8,8cm R Pz Gr 4312 for the Puppchen was already developed and had proved itself as reliable during testing they only had to redesign the ignition system and tail to have functioning ammunition. Secondly a drum was added to the fins to increase stability and ease the handling of the grenade. And finally they changed the firing system. The firing system for the M1 depended on a electric battery. This system was deemed inadequate by the Germans and replaced with a simple spring activated rod that hit a shock-generator (Stoßgenerator) and produced the current necessary to ignite the motor. But even as late as 21. September 1943 it was reported that trials with a battery for cold conditions had been halted, so they must have toyed with the idea of using a battery as well.

The only disadvantage compared with the Puppchen was that the closed tube of the Puppchen could give the rocket a muzzle velocity of 230m/s, while the open tube of the new weapon only managed 110 m/s. The effective range would sink from 230m with the Puppchen to 150m with the new rocket launcher.

Due to several problems the first batch of "Ofenrohr" was delayed. The Heereswaffenamt Wa Prüf 11 was able to deliver the first production run of 1500 weapons and 5000 grenades for air transport to the front on the 5'th of October 1943. Another 10000 grenades were ready 10 days later, but the complete run of 15000 grenades was restricted to a more narrow temperature range than later serial production grenades, and was meant for educational purposes only.
The document below describes some of the problems the 
Heereswaffenamt Wa Prüf 11 was facing with the development. I found it so important that I have chosen to include both the original document, a transcribed version and a translated version.

Original document Transcribed version Translated to English

The document also effectively kills two urban myths. First of all that the name "Ofenrohr" was assigned to the weapon by the troops is clearly wrong. This document concerns the production of the first batch of trial weapons, and the weapon is solely referred to as the "Ofenrohr" by the office responsible for the first production run! The second myth is the very existence of a "Raketen Panzer Büchse 43". According to this document the first batch of Ofenrohrs were ready for delivery on the 5'th of October 1943, but the first manual with the designation "Raketen Panzer Büchse 54" was printed on 30 September 1943.  So the very existence of an "earlier" model is impossible. I will return to this "problem" later!

A small comparison of a early war and a late war AT weapon
Pak 36 Panzerschreck
Combat weight 450 kg (952lb) Combat weight 9,5 kg (21lb)
Would penetrate 64mm armor at 100m Would penetrate 160mm armor at 100m
Production cost Reichsmark 5730,- Production cost Reichsmark 70,-

The name says it all
The official designation for the new weapon was "8,8 cm Raketen Panzer Büchse 54", with the official abbreviation "8,8 cm R PzB 54". "Panzer Büchse" literally translates to "Tank Rifle", but this name is just a historical left-over from a by then unsatisfactory weapon system.  The first mentioning of this weapon that we have been able to find is in the "Gerätliste" (“List of devices”) from 1.7.1943. It lists Neue Gerät-Nr. 6030 "8,8 cm R Panzerbüchse 6030". The "Gerät" number is not referred to in any other publications, and was only used by the developers and industry. The device is also mentioned in a report from “Der Panzeroffizier im Generalstab des Heeres” dated 10.08.1943. The report concludes that the “R Pz B 6030 (Ofenrohr)” will be sent to the frontline for troop trials very soon. This is also the first recorded use of the nickname “Ofenrohr” (“Stove pipe”). A new report one month later, on 8.9.1943, states that the “Army in the East will soon get a anti-tank weapon with an effective range of at least 100m with the 8,8-cm-Raketen-Panzerbüchse 43 (Ofenrohr)”.  The first official manual that mentions the weapon is the "Panzer-Beschusstafel 8,8 cm R PzB 54, Stand 30.9. 43". On 29.11.1943 the name “Panzerschreck” (Tank fear) was officially adopted by Der Führer. A campaign to boost morale renamed most of the new weapons issued or under construction at the time. "Karabin 43"and "Sturmgewehr" are two other examples. But 8 days later the old name is still printed; on the 7.12.
1943 came the Merkblatt 77/2 “8,8 cm R PzB 54 (Ofenrohr) Richtlinien für Ausbildung und Einsatz”. The first official document I have found with the new nickname is the manual D 1864/1 from 7.6.1944; “Panzerschreck 8,8 cm R PzB 54 mit 8,8 cm R PzBGr 4322, Gebrauchsanleitung”. Why they choose the model designation "54" is a mystery, but this is in line with a lot of other newly developed German weapons that got strange model numbers. To mention a few; Einstoss-flammenwerfer 46, SS-Gewehr-Panzergranate 61, 8,8-cm-Raketenwerfer 58 and 8,8-cm-Panzerbüchse 70.

A schematic timeline of the names used at different times

01.07.1943 8,8 cm R Panzerbüchse 6030
10.08.1943 R Pz B 6030 (Ofenrohr)
08.09.1943 8,8-cm-Raketen-Panzerbüchse 43 (Ofenrohr)*
30.09. 1943 8,8 cm R PzB 54
29.11.1943 “Panzerschreck”
07.12. 1943 8,8 cm R PzB 54 (Ofenrohr)
07.06.1944 Panzerschreck 8,8cm R PzB 54 mit 8,8 cm R PzBGr 4322

*Not verified. Based on a report cited in the book "Deutsche Nahkampfmittel".

Despite the fact that the weapon changed names several times during it’s lifespan of less than 2 years, it was always the same weapon. Improvements were made continually, but none of these were directly connected with any “model changes”. The only model-change that was approved and got a new name was the "8,8 cm R PzB 54/1".

The "Tarnbezeichnung" (codename) for the weapon that was issued by the "Reichsminister für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion" (Armaments and War Production) was given as
The name was assigned to the item listed as “8,8 cm Raketen Panzer Büchse 6030”.
It is not known when the codename was first given, but the name is listed as still in use in a document dated 12.12.1944. This also indicates that the industry continued to use the Gerätnummer 6030.
Erntekranz literally means "harvest wreath". The code name was, just like the Gerät number, solely used by the industry and developers.

The word "Panzerschreck"
The German words "Panzer Schrek" literary means Tank Fear. The idea was to give newly designed weapons aggressive names to boost the morale of the troops. Incidentally, the first mentioning I have found of the word "Panzerschreck" was in the Merkblatt 77/2  ...(Ofenrohr) Richtlinien für Ausbildung und Einsatz from 04.11.1943. In this manual the word is used in conjunction with own troops' fear for enemy tanks. The manual states that Ofenrohr crews should be placed in foxholes and run over by friendly tanks in order to rid them of their "Panzerschreck"! 25 days later the phrase is turned around and given as the new name for the Ofenrohr!

The illusive Raketen Panzer Büchse 43
One official “model” that never existed, but is well worth mentioning was the "8,8 cm Raketen Panzer Büchse 43". As mentioned earlier, this designation was used in internal reports (not verified) within the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) for a brief period of less than a month in 1943, before the official designation was established as "8,8 cm Raketen Panzer Büchse 54". In most of my weapon literature books the first model of the Panzerschreck with no shield is named "Raketen Panzer Büchse 43". When I started writing on this article I gathered up information about the different models (also the "43" that I believed was a separate model at the time), but it soon struck me that I found no documentation that the RPzB 43 ever existed as a designated model. Mass production of the weapon started in September 1943, with the first 1500 weapons and 5000 grenades delivered at 5. October 1943 for troop trials. And the first manual from 30. September states that the name is “8,8 cm R PzB 54”.  Even the heavily modified and shortened RPzB 54/1 kept the same model number. After a tip that lead me to the “US Army Intelligence Bulletin November 1944”, it all made sense.  The text in Italic below was borrowed from Lonesentry.com and is a transcript from the mentioned publication.

Readers also are familiar with such weapons as the antitank hollow-charge grenade which can be launched from the standard rifle, and with the signal pistol fitted to fire hollow charges. However, the non-recoil weapons of the bazooka type—a most important group—have not yet been discussed.

Of this group the first weapon to be adopted was a frank copy of the bazooka. The larger German version is called the 8.8-cm Raketenpanzerbüchse 43, or Ofenrohr (stovepipe) for short. Sometimes it is called the Panzerschreck—(tank terror). The Ofenrohr fires an 88-mm hollow-charge projectile weighing 7 pounds. The maximum range is about 165 yards. The Ofenrohr is clumsier than the bazooka, and is reputed to be less accurate.
[The Ofenrohr with the projectile used in it and in the Püppchen. (Panzerschreck)]
The Ofenrohr, with the projectile used in it and in the Püppchen.

The Püppchen ("Dolly"), a carriage-mounted rocket launcher with breechblock also fires the 88-mm rocket. Although the Püppchen has wheels, the gun can be fired from little sleighs to achieve a very low silhouette. While the Püppchen, has a range of 770 yards, is very lightly built, and is likely to smash up when towed by motor vehicles.

And the same misconception is written again in the March 1945 issue

There are two types of German bazooka both of which the German soldiers call Ofenrohr, or "stovepipe." The newer is the 8.8-cm R. Pz. B. 54; its shield for the firer is the feature which principally distinguishes it from the earlier R. Pz. B. 43. According to the Germans, the Ofenrohr's 88-mm, 7.5-pound, hollow-charge round can achieve penetrations on any Allied armored vehicle at ranges up to 160 yards, but is not suitable for use against unarmored targets. Larger and clumsier than the U.S. bazooka, the Ofenrohr has projectile guide tubes, which wear out after about 300 rounds have been fired.

So this was probably where it all started. The name "Raketenpanzerbüchse 54" was mixed up with the "Raketenwerfer 43 (Puppchen)". The ammunition was not interchangeable, as already mentioned. W.H.B. Smith, the author of "Small arms of the world", most probably based his information on this. In his 6'th revised edition in March 1945 the Raketenpanzerbüchse 43 appears for the first time. The text that accompanies the pictures of the Panzerschreck is written in the form "It has been reported....". The text also has an incorrect description of how the firing system works. It stands to reason that this information at this time was secondary, collected from US intelligence sources while the war was still on going. But the name has stuck, so everybody is quoting everybody else!
The Germans never had a separate model named "Raketenpanzerbüchse 43", but you will find this model described in almost all of the post-war weapon literature that includes AT weapons!

Development of the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54

As mentioned earlier the weapon system fielded as the Ofenrohr was flawed with several design faults from the start. But it was considered crucial to the war effort to supply the troops with better anti-tank capability, so this was considered a “necessary evil”. Improvements to the weapon system was a never ending story, from the weapon was sent out for troop trials until the fall of the Reich. Feedback from the units equipped with the weapon, as well as new developments by the WA Prüf 11 were implemented both as product improvements on the assembly line, but also issued as orders to the units to upgrade the existing weapons in use. Due to this it is impossible to divide the Raketen Panzer Büchse 54 into further models, although the introduction of the shield is tempting to use as a distinction between the early and late version.

The Raketen Panzer Büchse 54 fired the Raketenpanzerbüchsegranat 4322 (RPzBGr 4322) which was a shaped-charge grenade (HEAT). The RPzBGr 4322 would penetrate all known tank armour at its time, as long as the angle of impact didn't get too low. One of the shortcomings of the RPzBGr 4322 was that it didn't manage to completely burn up the rocket motor before it left the tube, but would continue to burn for another 2 meters in its flight. This resulted in burning fragments of propellant that would hit the gunner, together with secondary debris like sand and gravel. The gunner had to protect himself by wearing a gas mask (with no filter) a hood and gloves. This outfit was of course a big nuisance to the operational use of the weapon. Creeping up on a T34, trying to get within 75 meters to get a safe kill, with this gear on would be tiresome at the best.
Other shortcomings included the missing safety bracket used to prevent the muzzle from scooping up snow and dirt, a stepped rear end that would make the grenades difficult to load, a grenade catch that had to be depressed in order to load etc. The sight frames where thin and fragile, and especially the front sight was prone to bend if the weapon wasn’t handled very carefully.

The cumbersome outfit necessary to fire the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 early version. The weapon above has been cocked and the safety is off.

A demonstration in spring 1944 of the new weapon system. This Panzerschreck has no modifications.

Due to the several shortcomings of the weapon system, mainly the problems with the rocket exhaust, a new improved version soon replaced the early version at the assembly lines. But at the same time the OKH issued orders to upgrade the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 to the same standard as the new weapon, so in theory the early version would cease to exist. The troops already equipped with the early version would receive the parts and instructions to upgrade their weapons to a late version.
For details about this process read the manual D1846/5 which is in fact a "Upgrading the Panzerschreck for dummies". The early version was manufactured from September/October 1943 to approximately January/February 1944.

 The late version is basically the same weapon system, but with some added features that makes it better (but slightly heavier). The most important improvement was the addition of the protective shield. This enabled the gunner to skip the gas mask and padded hood, but he still needed to protect his right hand, as the shield didn't cover the right side of the weapon.
To prevent dirt and snow from entering the tube in front while the gunner was manoeuvring into firing position a protective bar (Schutzbügel) was placed under the muzzle. It could in theory be used as a monopod under ideal situations, but the trigger guard (Handhabe) went lower and was more frequently used for this purpose.
The sights were altered with a (sideways) adjustable rear sight notch, and a single post front sight that was adjustable according to the ammunition available (summer/winter). The front sight was also made less transparent in order to protect the glass window from burning powder particles flying to the rear. The frame was more massive with a thicker edge and was less prone to be bent. The disadvantage was of course that spotting and sighting the target became more difficult.

The Panzerschreck above shows the Schutzbügel and the new massive adjustable sight in place. The gunner is still using gloves, and the protective bar is used as a monopod. Also note the paint spills in the tube opening from the factory painting.

The Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 in its second version with the protective shield appears to have become standard by mid-1944 with the help of the upgrade kit. The late version was manufactured from January/February 1944 to August 1944 when production of the RPzB 54 seems to have ceased.

The safety also got an upgrade with a sturdier version that was easier to operate. Finally the protective ring (Schutzkranz) was altered to make loading easier.
It is not possible to date some of these “product improvements” as they don’t appear to have entered production simultaneously.

The Raketenpanzerbüchse 54/1

A very rare picture of the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54/1 that actually saw service. The US soldier is comparing it with a M1 Bazooka.

This was the final model of the Panzerschreck. It was basically a Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 of standard production that had been shortened and rebuilt with the same improvements that had been implemented for the 54. None of the 54/1 was manufactured from scratch. With the introduction of the shield the extremely long tube of the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 was pointless. In addition the 54/1 had a new connection system developed for the new grenade. I have dedicated a whole page to the RPzB 54/1

Comparison of the different versions and models
The difference between the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 early version and the Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 late version was mainly the added shield and a few other details. But an "upgrade kit" was issued, so all the early versions were eventually modified into the late version. Due to this it is almost impossible to tell if a weapon started as a early or late production version. The only way to tell them apart is the construction of the front sight, the new safety and the improved protective ring. The 54/1 was just a shortened 54 and is easily distinguishable from the 54 due to the shorter barrel.  The range and performance depended entirely on the ammunition in use, and the results would be the same for all weapons. The grenade developed for the 54/1 could also be used with the standard Panzerschreck with new sights added.
Model RPzB 54 early version RPzB 54 Late version RPzB 54/1
Barrel length 164 cm 164 cm 135 cm
Weight 9,5 kg 11 kg 9,5 kg

None of the other models made it past the prototype stage so it is impossible to make any comparisons.

On the drawing board

The Raketenpanzerbüchse 54/2
This weapon never made it beyond the prototype stage. No pictures or drawings are known to exist, but it is described in a report from the period. It was an even shorter version, measuring only 110cm and weighing only 7.5 kg. It came with an improved support, an improved shield and a double action trigger that did away with the cocking lever. It also got an adjustable rear sight for 50 to 250 meters.

The Ersatz Raketenpanzerbüchse
Between July and December 1944 the German armed forces reportedly lost 12.965 Panzerschrecks. Nearing the end of the war raw-materials were in constant shortage, so German engineers tried to save raw materials as best as they could by redesigning and improving already existing solutions. One such idea was to manufacture the Raketenpanzerbüchse from cardboard paper, the so called "Presstoff". This would save 5,5 kg of metals and reduce the overall weight with 2kg. The SS-Waffenakademie in Brno was responsible for the prototypes and testing, but this model never saw serial production.

Other models
A similar weapon in 10,5 cm codenamed "Hammer" was also developed, but since this weapon functioned by entirely different principles (recoilless, but fired like a mortar round with the powder on the outside of the grenade) it has no resemblance with the Panzerschreck family and I will not include it in this article.

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