Unlikely Hero: How a PIAT saved the Normandy Landings
June 07, 2019
75 years ago the Allied troops holding the Normandy beachhead were at “D-Day +1”. Victory was not sure, and the fight for Europe was just beginning. Due to this we will continue our look back in time. As the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings are being observed one can be easily swept away by a tidal wave of stories. If a single book was ever written to encompass all aspects of the Normandy story it would make “War and Peace” look like a pamphlet.
One of the more interesting tales covers a single incident at the Orne River Bridge involving the most unlikely of heroes, the lowly PIAT. Anyone familiar with modern military history will agree that the British “Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank” or PIAT would be the last weapon of its kind selected by any soldier if given other options. This was simply due to its fierce recoil, short range, mediocre accuracy and the difficulty just to cock it and ready it for action.
When the British Army entered World War II they believed the best weapons to fight tanks were other tanks. Like many armies of the world, the British equipped their infantry with a large caliber “Anti-Tank Rifle” or ATR for defense against tanks and armored vehicles. Dubbed the Boys Anti-Tank Rifle, after its designer Captain Henry C. Boys, it was an enormous bolt-action repeater chambered for a belted .55 caliber cartridge. Feed was from a top mounted 5-round magazine which required the sights to be offset onto the left side of the rifle.
Nicknamed the “Elephant Gun” by the troops, it was a 5 foot long, 35 pound rifle that fired a 925-grain AP slug at 2,450 fps. Despite its heavy recoil, it was capable of penetrating just 18mm of armor plate at 500 yards. This lack of armor penetration combined with the reduced mobility of the gun team reduced its practical effectiveness. During Operation Crusader in November 1941 the British couldn’t find a single documentable account of a Boys Rifle knocking out a German tank. The British “Tommies” also had a small No. 68 rifle grenade at their disposal but it was short ranged and not very accurate. Plus, due to its small charge only the lightest of vehicles were vulnerable to it. Obviously something better was needed.
Requests for a new anti-tank platform were solicited to find a simple and inexpensive replacement as quickly as possible. Through a winding series of events Lt. Colonel Blacker and Major Jefferis had separately created parts of what would become the PIAT. The PIAT is more of a spigot or direct fire mortar than the rocket propelled grenades of its contemporaries. Since it utilized a shaped charge warhead, it was not velocity dependent and could be used against both tanks and bunkers. It was twice the weight of the American Bazooka but 3 pounds lighter and half the length of the Boys Rifle.
By 1944 in preparation of D-Day all major British infantry formations were issued PIATs. For British airborne units it was the only significant support weapon they could take with them. Unfortunately the lackluster operational history of the PIAT didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The primary issues were the weapons weight and bulk, which hindered the mobility of the tank killer team. That was just the start though. Accuracy was such that a well-trained operator only had about a 60% chance of hitting his target at just 100 yards. Keep in mind we are talking about hitting a target the size of a tank. If you did hit your target you could expect fully 25% of the rounds not detonating. On the plus side, if you did hit your target and the bomb did explode the effect was impressive and typically enough to knock out any German armored vehicle. Plus, unlike the bazooka or Panzerfaust there was no dangerous back-blast or blinding firing signature.
On the night of June 5th the Glider Infantry Brigade of the British Sixth Airborne Division took off to capture the bridges crossing the Canal de Caen and Orne Rivers. This objective was so important to the Allies that an equivalent of a full division’s worth of assets were allocated to achieve success. Meanwhile the Germans also understood the area’s importance and made any open areas near the bridge as unsuitable as possible for use as landing zones. Many of the gliders crashed or were scattered too far apart. Regardless of the situation, members of the 2nd Battalion Oxford & Buckinghamshire (Ox and Bucks) infantry pressed onward. The Orne river waterway presented the only physical barrier the British could use to prevent the German panzers from rolling across the entire Commonwealth landing zone. They quickly succeeded in overrunning the local German garrison and completed the easiest task. Holding the bridge was a whole different matter.
The Allies knew there were several forces around the bridge and their biggest concern were elements from the 21st Panzer Division. This unit contained many Afrika Korps veterans. Standard German combat doctrine dictated that once a significant enemy attack was presented local commanders were to organize a counterattack to disrupt the enemy advance and give reserves time to assemble. While much of the German Army was paralyzed until Hitler gave permission, these veterans wouldn’t wait. Around 2 am the local commanders recognized the situation, and collected any forces they could to retake the bridge. At the head of this attack were German panzers, the worst enemy of paratroopers.
To face the oncoming armored attack the Ox and Bucks only had one serviceable PIAT that survived the landings. That lone PIAT was called into action and desperate fight was expected as the German tanks lumbered into view. As the British paratroopers tensely watched, the PIAT gunner fired off his first at the lead German tank. As if guided by the hand of Nike herself the shot struck home and the bomb’s shaped charge penetrated the lead panzer and ignited its ammunition. It immediately erupted with flames shooting out its hatches. While the Germans easily outnumbered the British paratroopers, they suddenly faltered. With the British strength unknown the attack was called off and the German unit backed off to get authorization for more reinforcements.
That single confrontation and lucky shot bought precious time for the British to get reinforcements to protect the bridge. Once dawn broke naval artillery and aircraft were available for support and the German’s chance was gone. Had the earlier attack been pressed the bridge could have been theirs. The Normandy landings would have had a much different story than the one we know. Was it luck or a higher power that the largely insignificant PIAT made history?