The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 3 No 5 - June 1976

Artillery and anti-tank defence

by HANS-JUSTUS KREKER (translated)

Editors’ Note: The following article was first published in the West German ‘Artillerie-Rundschau’ in 1967. The situation has not changed in the meantime. The problem of artillery and anti-tank defence is shown by the development of the German artillery; the author believes that his reflections are still valid today, and should not be regarded merely as a historical summary.

The tactical role of artillery has developed during the course of centuries. By concentrated fire and by shelling individual targets and hostile artillery its task is to:-
— support the attack of own troops
— pin down the enemy
— prevent the concentration of enemy reserves
— facilitate the defence of own troops
— destroy concentrations of the enemy.
When the author seeks a definite relationship between field artillery and anti-tank defence in the following paragraphs it does not mean that the recent development of artillery is regarded as incorrect. But it is true that since 1942 defence measures have been developed more and more to combat tanks, and that field artillery cannot ignore this fact.

The special development of anti-tank weapons does not alter this view since. although there are effective anti-aircraft weapons, great importance is still attached to the anti-aircraft defence of all troops. In the analogous anti-tank defence of all troops, artillery plays a leading part. Therefore the following thoughts are not an evaluation of the development of the artillery, but only a survey from the standpoint of anti-tank defence.

The Development until 1918

When World War I broke out on August 1st, 1914, none of the participating nations had any idea of the revolutionary technical developments which would take place during the war. In particular, no one suspected that November 20th, 1917, would be regarded as the day on which a new era in the art of war commenced. It was on this day that tanks or Panzer, as they were later called by the Germans, appeared on the battlefield of Cambrai for the first time as a decisive weapon and only the fire of all available guns prevented a breakthrough. How was the artillery organised which gained such a success, though it was in no way prepared for anti-tank defence?

At the beginning of the war the normal German infantry division included a field artillery brigade consisting of two regiments of two battalions each. One regiment had a howitzer battalion with three batteries, each battery with six howitzers, and a gun battalion with three batteries, each battery with six 7.7 cm field guns. The two battalions of the second regiment had a total of six batteries, each with six field guns of the aforementioned calibre.

After several reorganizations during the war, the artillery of the infantry division consisted in 1918 of one regiment of field artillery with three battalions. Each battalion had three batteries of four guns. Normally the battalion had two batteries of field guns and one battery of howitzers. Besides this regiment, the division had one battalion of heavy artillery consisting of two batteries of heavy howitzers and one battery of 10 cm guns. Each battery had four guns.

Though one can already notice a change in armament from gun to howitzer, the infantry division still had a noteworthy amount of guns at the end of the war, and only the gun was fit for anti-tank defence because of its higher muzzle velocity and flatter trajectory when compared with the howitzer. This means that it was the guns of the artillery units which fought at Cambrai which finally won the day; but the higher command did not draw the necessary and logical conclusions, and the problem of anti-tank defence was left unsolved. The remark of the Austrian general Ritter von Eimannsberger in later years drives home the point that never did a nation pay more dearly for a success than the Germans for their successful defence at Cambrai. Instead the method which seemed successful was continued, that of the creeping barrage and drum-fire, and the artillery was equipped with large calibre, low muzzle velocity howitzers. Firing at concealed targets became easier, but the ability to undertake flat trajectory shooting lessened.


The development, of guns after 1918 was influenced by the above facts. The tank was regarded as the most suitable weapon against the tank - a principle still valid today, but compliance is enormously expensive and does not, in any case, provide the best solution.

Nevertheless it was understood that the introduction of the howitzer as the main weapon of the field artillery made it necessary to design a special weapon for the anti-tank defence of the infantry, because all experts knew that the equipment of the field artillery could not be used for anti-tank defence as it lacked the appropriate guns.

Here General Ritter von Eimannsberger must be mentioned once more. His ideas, as a pioneer of the tank weapon, are still surprisingly up to date, but for us it is important that Eimannsberger was concerned with anti-tank defence as well. In theory he developed the ‘Kraftdivision’, ‘Kraft’ here meaning motorized. Anti-tank defence is the strong point of such a division. It consists of three infantry regiments and two artillery regiments whose task is anti-tank defence. The artillery regiment (called a ‘Tuf’-Regiment, which means Tank-und Fliegerabwehrregiment, i.e., anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiment) consists of four battalions with guns equally suited for use against tanks aircraft and other targets. The light battalions have 75 mm guns, the heavy ones guns with a calibre between 85 and 100 mm. As anti-tank defence is paramount there are no howitzers, but only the multi-purpose guns. Unfortunately less attention was paid to Eimannsberger’s ideas concerning anti-tank defence than to his thoughts about tank tactics.

The first anti-tank gun (Panzerabwehrkanone - Pak) was developed in the years 1933/34. It had a calibre of 3,7 cm and was used in action for the first time during the Spanish Civil War, where it was employed with great success against the tanks of that period. In the succeeding years it became the standard weapon for anti-tank defence and the anti-tank battalions of the divisions as well as the anti-tank companies of the infantry regiments were equipped with this gun. While the infantry division was still in the ‘normal’ division in 1918, technical development in the years following the war had necessitated the formation of other types of division as well, but the artillery of all these divisions consisted mainly of howitzers, and for anti-tank defence the Pak 3,7 cm.

PAK 35/36

37mm PAK 35/36 at the S.A. National Museum of Military History. The right side shield on this gun is missing
Photo: Maj. D.D. Hall

When war broke out on September 1st, 1939, German divisions had the following artillery equipment:-

 Infantry DivisionMountain DivisionMotorized Infantry DivisionPanzer DivisionLight DivisionCavalry Brigade
light infantry gun (7,5 cm)20122481212
heavy infantry gun (15 cm)6     
Pak (3,7 cm)754872185421
light field howitzer (10,5 cm)3616*36162412**
heavy field howitzer (15 cm)128128  
gun (l0 cm)   4  
anti-aircraft gun (2 cm)12 12121212

* mountain guns
** field guns

One must add the Army artillery, consisting of heavy artillery battalions most of which were equipped with howitzers. Finally the mortars of the infantry must be mentioned since they could carry out part of the task of the howitzers because of their construction and method of fire. It must be pointed out that the importance of the mortar grew steadily during the war. Not without reason is it said that the Red Army conquered East Prussia with its mortars.

In September 1939 the total number of guns in the field army (excluding guns of which only a few types existed) was:-

light infantry guns(7,5 cm)2 933
heavy infantry guns(15 cm)410
light field howitzers(10,5 cm)4 845
heavy field howitzers(15 cm)2 049
guns(10 cm)702
mortars(21 cm)22
Pak(3,7 cm)11 200

As will be noticed from the high number of Pak, the problem of anti-tank defence had been recognized, but had become the task of a special weapon and not that of the whole artillery. The scrapping of the field gun and its replacement by the light field howitzer was the decisive step which made it impossible to use artillery in a tactical anti-tank defence role. The campaigns in Poland and France brought about no problems in anti-tank defence from an artillery point of view, but at several points, however, the unsatisfactory performance of the Pak 3,7cm against heavy tanks was clearly shown. The artillery had to face its real test, in the battle against the tank during the campaign against the Soviet Union. The German army started with the following gun strength:-

light infantry guns(7,5 cm)4 176
heavy infantry guns(15 cm)876
light field howitzers(10,5 cm)7 076
heavy field howitzers(15 cm)2 867
guns(10 cm)760
mortars(21 cm)388
Pak(3,7 cm)14 459
Pak(5 cm)1 047

The equipment of individual divisions had hardly changed since the beginning of the war, surplus stocks being required to equip new divisions and Army artillery. The introduction of the Pak 5 cm shows that the unsatisfactory performance of the Pak 3,7 cm was realized. Just how unsatisfactory this gun was, was shown in its whole tragedy by the appearance of the Russian T34 tank. At first this tank could only be countered by a gun, and paradoxically the majority of these guns did not belong to the Army but to the Luftwaffe, i.e. the 8,8 cm Flak (anti-aircraft) gun.

In spite of all its shortcomings the field artillery had now to take an active role in anti-tank defence. This meant that the howitzers had to leave cover in order to obtain a field of fire against tanks. There were successes by direct shooting, but they were paid for dearly. In consequence of the artillery armament of the divisions the only successful method was by concentrating fire on assembly areas, i.e. by pattern bombardment. Against a tank attack, and tanks which had broken through, only anti-tank guns were of any use.

Though shells, hollow-charges, automatic loading and all-round traverse mountings were introduced for howitzers, the value of these improvements was limited. Pak, horsedrawn or motorized, proved to be a failure in spite of increasing calibres. The gun was too immobile, and once in combat with tanks it had either to win or go under whilst a tank could often outmanoeuvre the superior fire power of the Pak.

From about 1942 onwards the Pak was partly replaced by the assault gun which had originally been designed to accompany the infantry and to destroy, by direct fire, pockets of resistance in the forward areas. A 7,5 cm weapon, the assault gun became the backbone of infantry anti-tank defence. The successes obtained by the assault guns led, as a result, to the development of tank destroyers mounted on armoured self-propelled carriages.

The campaign in Russia in 1941/42 showed that no effective success against tanks could be achieved by the normal guns on hand. The minds of the higher commanders at the front were occupied with these problems. One of the requirements was to replace the obsolescent infantry gun of the infantry regiment with a 7,5 cm gun, on a self-propelled carriage, and capable of providing both anti-tank defence and infantry support. The light field howitzer would have to be replaced by flat trajectory guns with longer range and suitable for anti-tank defence. An almost complete switch round in armament in the middle of a war was an enormous problem, and only slow progress was made. Authorized divisional gun-strengths in equipments of calibres greater than 2 cm after the reorganization of October 1943 illustrate this point:-

  Panzer Div.Panzer Grenadier Div.Infantry Div.
light infantry gun (7,5 cm)61418
heavy infantry gun (15 cm)1246
anti-aircraft gun (8.8 cm)88 
medium Pak  3  
heavy Pak  642148
reconnaissance vehicles (3,7 cm)18  
reconnaissance vehicles (7,5 cm)18  
light field howitzer (10,5 cm)302327
heavy field howitzer (15 cm)889
gun (10 cm)44 
Panzer V  51  
Panzer IV  68  
assault gun   4514
tank destroyer   4312

The importance of anti-tank defence was seen more and more clearly, and artillery equipment improved accordingly, but all efforts were overshadowed by the words: ‘too little and too late’. The original equipment of the artillery at the beginning of the war, unsuited to anti-tank defence, could not be changed overnight.

The main burden of artillery anti-tank defence was borne by the assault guns and tank destroyers on self-propelled carriages. The self-propelled guns of the artillery in the Panzer divisions - (and only Panzer divisions were equipped with them) - i.e. the 10,5 cm ‘Wespe’ light field howitzer, and the 15 cm ‘Hummel’ heavy field howitzer, could take part in anti-tank defence, but they suffered from the previously menationed disadvantages even though they were very mobile.

PAK 40

75mm PAK 40 at the S.A. National Museum of Military History.
Photo: Maj. D.D. Hall

Finally it must be pointed out that in 1944 the artillery of the Volksgrenadier divisions received a limited number of a new 7,5 cm field gun. It was a combined field and anti-tank gun which was only a makeshift solution, but the gun was mobile and effective in combat. It could have served as the start of a new type of divisional artillery equipment. Besides this gun there was a test vehicle consisting of the chassis of a Panzer 1V carrying a 105 mm Pak. This was a multi-purpose weapon suitable as a tank destroyer and nominal artillery gun.

The materiel of the artillery, i.e. the guns of 1939/45, was good, but the equipment had been made according to the rules applicable in 1918 when artillery had the role of firing barrages. In consequence the artillery could not be used effectively in anti-tank defence, especially during the second part of the war. The Panzer and Panzer grenadier divisions could achieve successes because of their organization, but, the infantry divisions which had to hold their ground were wiped out by tanks if they were not reinforced by assault guns or tank destroyers of the Army artillery.


The new organization of the German army did not at first differentiate between Panzer and Panzer grenadier divisions. There were no infantry divisions of the old type. The artillery of these divisions corresponded to the artillery of the Americam armoured division in 1944 and consisted of three battalions, each of three batteries of six 105 mm self-propelled field howitzers. The formation of these divisions was soon stopped by the regrouping in 1959. Artillery anti-tank defence displayed all the shortcomings which it had shown at the end of the war in 1945.

Regrouping in 1959

A change in tactical thinking brought about by the requirements of atomic warfare led to a reorganization - instead of the division, the brigade became the operative independent unit. The standardized division was formed consisting of Panzer and Panzer grenadier brigades. What does this mean in terms of artillery anti-tank defence? The firing units of the artillery battallion in a brigade consist of two batteries each with six 155 mm self-propelled field howitzers. A third battery with medium rocket launchers is to be added in the near future. A new formation is the grenadier brigade, formed in 1965, with a field artillery battalion equipped with light 105 mm field howitzers on self-propelled mountings.

The heavy artillery of the division has two tasks: to support the brigade and to provide a massed concentration at divisional level when ordered by the divisional commander. The artillery regiment has the following firing units: a heavy field artillery battallion with two batteries each of six 175 mm heavy guns, and one battery with four heavy 203 mm field howitzers and another battalion of heavy rocket launchers with three batteries each with two ‘Honest John’ 762 mm launchers.

Combined, the artillery of the division and its brigades has an immense fire-power against troop concentrations and for the preparation of an attack. One must consider the combat role of the brigade. Its tanks, special tank destroyer companies, and the rocket-and-tank destroyer platoons of the heavy companies in the Panzer grenadier battalions represent a noteworthy defensive force against a tank attack. Whether another formation for anti-tank defence would result in a still more efficient defence will not be discussed. But the artillery still faces the same problems as in World War II, though some improvements have been made.

When one considers the tasks for which only howitzers could be used in previous years that can today be carried out by rocket launchers and mortars with commensurate calibre, the necessary range and adequate mobility, one must automatically ask whether it would not be expedient to replace some with medium guns. These can be used not only in the normal artillery role, but in anti-tank defence as well, and the fight against tanks will be the decisive one in defence.

The Soviet Union

Let us now look at the artillery of the Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that the Soviet artillery, in contradistinction to the Western Powers, has more guns than howitzers and, as an intermediate equipment, howitzers. This means that the artillery is able to counter a tank attack. The advantages for anti-tank defence are obvious.

Moreover the Soviet artillery has no self-propelled guns designed for firing concentrations by indirect shooting, but assault guns for direct shooting. It may be assumed that the thought of anti-tank defence has played a part. Who is not reminded of the German assault gain of the Second World War?

Western anti-tank defence in the forward areas is mainly the task of special weapons, no longer that of the whole artillery. Considering Soviet development and the often-quoted 58 000 Soviet tanks should it not be necessary to think in terms of a light or medium field gun, or a multi-purpose gun?

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