About World War 1: German Bullets vs Allied Tanks
Tanks-- A Nasty Surprise For German Infantry
When the British prematurely unleashed their secret weapon, the Mark I tank, on September 15, 1916, during the Somme Offensive, they struck terror into the hearts of the German infantry. Despite the fact that many tanks broke down before even going into battle, nine of the 49 tanks managed to reach the German trenches. The Mark I's lumbered across the moonscape of No Man's Land, crushed paths through barbed wire entanglements, drove over the tops of trenches up to nine feet wide and laid waste to soldiers by the hundreds and thousands.
Tanks were vulnerable to artillery and mortar fire, but the poor, bloody German infantry were nearly helpless. Grenades were sometimes effective but could only be used when the tanks were nearly upon the thrower. Bullets from rifles and machine guns just bounced off the tanks' armor. Unless tanks were hit by indirect fire or suffered a mechanical breakdown or slid into an exceptionally deep crater, they wreaked havoc on the battlefield with their cannon and machine guns. From privates to generals, the Germans desperately sought ways to stop them. Fortunately for them, it wouldn't be until November 1917 before the British mastered the effective use of tanks en masse in a combined operation.
While the German generals pondered the appropriate response to this new battlefield phenomenon, the soldiers, with much more to lose, responded as best they could. Seeing how effective mortar shells were against the tanks, they clumsily positioned trench mortars on the firing line with the tubes depressed to low angles and aimed by eye site. This almost-direct-fire was sometimes effective, but dangerous to the crew for various reasons-- not the least being that they were completely exposed to enemy fire.
Remembering the hard lesson of how to penetrate the small steel shields sometimes used by snipers, the soldiers created reversed bullets. The slugs from normal rounds were twisted off, some additional propellant was added and the slugs were reversed and reinserted into the casing, giving the round a blunt-nosed appearance. In this configuration, the bullet could still be fired from a standard Mauser rifle but would not shatter. At very short ranges, reversed bullets could penetrate a tank's armor, if they hit head-on, about 30% of the time, killing or disabling unlucky tank crew members. Even if they didn't punch through, they might create spall, a spray of metal fragments, inside the tank. For this reason, tank crews took to wearing splatter masks, goggles with a chain mail face mask.
Although the tanks were a horror to deal with, the German generals could see they had many weaknesses. The production of armor-piercing bullets, called K bullets, was stepped up. These bullets, with a hardened steel core, had been specifically designed for use used against sniper shields, and were as effective as reversed bullets over a greater distance-- up to about 100 yards. It was generally thought, by the powers-that-be at least, that anti-tank weapons were all that were needed to defeat or at least minimize the Allied tank threat.
The problem with both types of ammunition was that they put a strain on the rifles, due to the extra charge and the slug configuration the Mauser rifle was not designed for. As a result, the rifles sometimes jammed, or worse, burst, injuring or killing the firer or those around him. Still, when faced with either the threat of an approaching tank or a possible malfunction, chance favored the bullets. Otherwise, artillery, mortars and grenades remained the best defense against tanks.
Better Tanks, Better Use of Tanks
In 1917, the British introduced the Mark IV tank with thicker armor, which neither bullet could effectively penetrate. On top of this, the British launched the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917 with 476 massed tanks-- the entire British Tank Corps. With six infantry divisions and 14 Royal Flying Corps squadrons in support, the tanks tore a hole seven miles wide through the German Hindenburg Line. Unfortunately, the British failed to follow through-- as if surprised by their stunning success-- and the Germans mounted counter-attack after counter-attack until all the ground was recovered. Nonetheless, all concerned finally saw the value of massed tanks.
To counter the thicker armor, the Germans created the Mauser 1918 T-Gewehr, history's first anti-tank rifle. Introduced in 1918, this monster single-shot bolt-action rifle fired a 13.2-mm (.525-in) armor-piercing bullet with an effective range of 500 meters. It weighed 41 lbs loaded and could easily penetrate the armor of any tanks made during World War One. Although its two-man crew was identified as a firer and a loader, both were trained to fire it and probably switched off due to the strain of firing it; the recoil was known to break collar bones and dislocate shoulders. Almost 16,000 were made during the war.
Wait Till Next Time
Although the Germans had been making use of captured Allied tanks, they got more serious about creating their own tanks after the Battle of Cambrai. They fielded the A7V in 1918, an ungainly monster that, regardless of its faults or virtues, was insignificant based simply on numbers: the Germans had 20 of them in total compared with more than 7,000 French and British tanks produced during the war. It was a lesson the Germans would rectify over the next 20 years.