Throughout history, there have been instances where the development of new technologies has been necessary to overcome obstacles, and the Second World War was no different.
The prominent rise and evolution of the tank during WWII meant that anti-tank weapons had to be developed, and quickly at that! The idea was to have a weapon that was fairly lightweight but could still pack the necessary punch to penetrate the tank’s armour.
Early anti-tank weapons were generally divided into three categories, all of which had their positives and negatives. Firstly, you had mines that when laid in the path of the tank would damage the tracks, immobilising it or even destroying it completely. A mine is an effective weapon when laid ahead of time, but they couldn’t be used during an attack.
Next, you had your thrown weapons, ranging from the basic Molotov through to shaped charged hand grenades; the former could be as simple as a wine bottle filled with petrol and using an old rag as a wick. Thrown weapons were moderately effective, but had a limited range. You’d also have to be pretty accurate with where you threw the grenades. For example, a Molotov was typically aimed at the vents on a tank in an attempt to cause maximum possible damage.
The third was essentially a scaled-up rifle, such as the .55 calibre Boys anti-tank rifle. The rifle was designed to shoot tank tracks or penetrate the lighter armour found on the sides of the tanks. However, anti-tank rifles were notoriously difficult to shoot and needed a certain amount of luck to disable a tank.
Fortunately for the British Army, the PIAT - an adapted Spigot mortar invented for the Home Guard in case of a German invasion - came to the rescue and soon became the British infantryman’s number one tank killer.
Standing for Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank, the PIAT was adapted to allow the average soldier to take on even the heaviest of tanks. By adding iron sights and an anti-tank warhead as the ammo, it soon transformed the mortar into a head-held weapon capable of penetrating three or four inches of steel armour at a range of 300 yards or less. But unlike the American Bazooka, the PIAT used a giant spring to throw an anti-tank warhead at enemy armoured vehicles. That’s right; the PIAT was essentially a giant air rifle! Imagine something like the Air Arms Pro Sport air rifle, but with the capabilities of taking out an armoured vehicle…
The PIAT was powered by a 200-lb spring that was cocked by standing on the weapon and pulling the spring back with both hands. Once the trigger was pulled, the spring drove a plunger into the anti-tank round (which weighed around 2.5 lbs) firing it forward. The plunger also set off a blank cartridge seated in the round.
The ammunition used is what is known today as a high explosive, anti-tank (HEAT) or chemical energy rounds. They work by channelling the energy from an explosion into a small area of the armour. Unlike the dart-like armour piercing rounds, hollow charge rounds work effectively regardless of project speed, which is a bonus as the PIAT rounds travelled at around 83 metres per second; slower than your average paintball gun!
Throughout the Second World War, there were six Victoria Crosses awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces for actions using the PIAT. They are as follows:
Fusilier Frank Jefferson used a PIAT to destroy a Panzer IV tank and repel a German counterattack against his unit as they attacked a section of the Gustav Line during the Italian Campaign.
Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis used a PIAT in an attack against a German field gun, in one of several actions on that day.
Rifleman Ganju Lama of the 7th Gurkha Rifles used a PIAT to knock out two Japanese tanks who were attacking his until at Ningthoukhong, Manipur, India (given as Burma in the official citation).
Despite sustaining injuries, Ganju Lama advanced to within thirty yards of the enemy tanks, and having disabled them, moved on to attack the crews as they tried to escape. When asked why he moved so close to the enemy by his Army Commander, William Slim, he stated that he was not certain of hitting with a PIAT from further than thirty yards.
Major Robert Henry Cain used a PIAT during the Battle of Arnhem to disable an assault gun that was advancing on his company’s position, and then another to force three German Panzer IV tanks to retreat during a later assault.
Private Ernest Alvia ("Smokey") Smith used a PIAT to destroy a German Mark V Panther tank; one of three Panthers and two self-propelled guns attacking his group. The two SPGs were also knocked out, and Smokey then used a Thompson submachine gun to kill or repel around 30 enemy soldiers, resulting in the securing of a bridgehead on the Savio River in Italy.
Captain John Henry Cound Brunt used a PIAT, among other weapons, to help repel an attack by the German 90th Panzergrenadier Division.
Check out the video below for some more information on the gun from Forgotten Weapon guys: