15 July 2012

'If all else fails, we can Pee-at them'

The American infantry in the Normandy campaign had their own particular method of hunting German panzers:

As in all armies, the combat performance of American troops in every battalion varied greatly. During the bocage battles, some GIs began to get over their terror of German panzers. Private Hicks of the 22nd Infantry with the 4th Division managed to destroy three Panthers over three days with his bazooka. Although he was killed two days later, confidence in the bazooka as an anti-tank weapon continued to increase. Colonel Teague of the 22nd Infantry heard an account from one of his bazooka men: 'Colonel, that was a great big son-of-a-bitch. It looked like a whole road full of tank. It kept coming and it looked like it was going to destroy the whole world. I took three shots at it and the son-of-a-bitch didn't stop'. He paused, and Teague asked him what he did next. 'I ran round behind and took one shot. He stopped'.  Some junior officers became so excited by the idea of panzer hunts that they had to be ordered to stop.
- Antony Beevor, D-Day, London, 2009, p.250.

PIAT - Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank
The British and Commonwealth forces, on the other hand, had to rely on the 'altogether less impressive' PIAT - the Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank - which struggled to deal with anything more robust than the lightest armour: 

Awkward to carry, cock and fire, it was of limited value against heavier German armour. "Our soldiers used to say if all else fails, we can Pee-at them', [Lieutenant] Edwin Bramall [of the 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps] recalled.
- Andrew Williams, D-Day to Berlin, London, 2004, p.147.
Major John Howard of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry wasn't impressed with the PIAT either, but it emerged from at least one encounter with a creditable performance. Here he recounts a meeting with some German armour:
...[W]e heard the ominous sound we most dreaded and that was the sound of tanks, and, sure enough, round about half-past one, two tanks were heard slowly coming down the road. The only anti-tank weapons we had were PIATs and we didn't have much faith in them. Even under ideal conditions they had a maximum range of fifty yards.  They threw a three-and-a-half pound bomb and, if it didn't hit directly whatever it was firing at, it had a nasty habit of not exploding and there wouldn't have been much time to reload, of course, with a tank under fifty yards away. We didn't like using them at night anyway. But the tanks came rumbling along.- Roderick Bailey, Forgotten Voices of D-Day, London, 2009, p.133.

Private Denis Edwards, part of Howard's company, takes up the story:

Wagger Thornton let these tanks get really up close to him and then he let fly. We never thought those PIAT bombs would ever do much damage to a proper tank but this flaming tank literally blew up, exploded. The whole thing went up. It was well loaded with ammunition, I don't know what sort of ammunition, but within moments of Wagger firing there were great spurts of green and orange and yellow as all the ammunition inside was exploding, making a hell of a din. And the other tank did a quick revving of engines and disappeared, backed off up the road, and we never heard from them again. -Ibid, p.134.
New Zealand forces also used the PIAT, particularly in the Italian campaign, when they replaced the outdated Boys anti-tank rifle. Many of the references in the official history of the campaign mention New Zealand PIATs damaging enemy tanks rather than destroying them, indicating that 'hitting the right place' might have been a challenging task. In December 1943 during Operation Torso C Company of 28 Battalion (the Maori Battalion) was forced back onto a ridgeline at Pascuccio near Cassino but managed to damage two of the German tanks attacking them with PIAT fire. And in the battles around the Sillaro River, Sergeant N.H. Mitchinson rushed a self-propelled gun and with his PIAT 'at very short range scored three direct hits. Its crew then fired on him, but he killed three of them with his tommy gun'. Mitchinson was later awarded the Military Medal, but note that despite three hits on the vehicle the crew were still able to retaliate and it took a sidearm to resolve the situation.

Similarly, during the assault on the Senio Line in April 1945, a fellow New Zealand eyewitness reported a close encounter:

After a wait of a couple of minutes the first two 88 SP guns came out of the mist nose to tail followed by a Tiger tank. For a few tense moments we thought they were going to spin round the corner but to our relief they passed straight by within 3 feet of us. When the Tiger had passed us about two yards L/Cpl Parker squeezed the trigger of the Piat but to our amazement nothing happened. He squeezed again and still nothing happened. He suddenly realised the safety catch was still applied…. By that time the tanks had disappeared in the mist so L/Cpl Parker picked up the Piat and went charging down the road after them. As soon as he caught sight of the rear of the end tank he got down and let a shot go, which hit the Tiger and put it out of action.’ When a Panther tank rushed and overran one of C Company's platoons, Lance-Sergeant Begley and his Piat gunner gave chase and at a range of eight yards scored three direct hits, which forced it into a ditch.

The PIAT was generally best used against softer targets. In this case, in the Normandy village of Le Port, south of Carentan. Lt Richard Todd of the 7th Battalion, Parachute Regt, explains:

B Company was in Le Port. They were pinned down by quite well-ensconced Germans and movement was very difficult. They were just pinned behind our headquarters position and they were really, really pinned down, particularly by snipers in the church tower. But we had this Corporal Killeen, an Irishman. Well, Corporal Killeen had a PIAT, a shoulder-firing anti-tank missile - very inaccurate, not very strong, very cumbersome, but quite effective if you happened to hit the right place. He mouse-holed through cottages, got from one to another, till he got to within range of the church. Later he described all this to the great BBC war correspondent, Chester Wilmot: "I got to within range of the church tower and I let fly with a bomb and I hit the church tower, knocked a bloody great hole in it. So I fired a few more times, and each time I hit the tower, and I made a real mess of that little church tower. I stood up and there was no firing. I walked across to the church - I reckoned it was safe for me then - but, oh, God, I was sorry to see what I'd done to a wee house of God. But I did take my hat off when I went inside". Absolutely true. He was a devout Irish Catholic boy. And there were twelve dead Germans in the tower. He'd killed the lot of them.-Bailey, p.330-1.

Lt Todd later met up with Maj Howard to repel German counter-attacks. Incidentally, Richard Todd later became a well-known film actor, starring as Wing Cdr Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters (1955), and in the classic 1962 war film The Longest Day he actually played the role of Maj John Howard. Another actor had to play Todd himself! 
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