By Robert G. Segel
Development and Design
Prior to, and in the beginning years of World War II, the British had two primary infantry anti-tank weapons: the Boys anti-tank rifle and the No. 68 anti-tank rifle grenade. Unfortunately, neither proved adequate to the job as advancement in technology brought forth newer and more heavily armored tanks. Outdated by 1940, the .55 caliber Boys was only effective at short ranges against light tanks and armored cars and was totally ineffective against the newer, heavier German tanks. The No. 68 anti-tank rifle grenade was too light to do any significant damage to tanks and was rarely used. These two outdated and ineffective weapons created a large hole in anti-tank warfare for the British and something new was desperately needed.
In the early 1930s, Lt. Col. Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker OBE of the Royal Artillery began work on prototype models of anti-tank weapons. He was intrigued with the idea of a spigot discharger that eliminates a convention barrel and replaces it with a hollow tail unit in the projectile that is placed in a simple tray. A percussion cartridge placed inside the hollow tail is struck by a heavy steel rod called the spigot, upon firing. The detonation of the cartridge blows the projectile from the spigot with the length of its travel along the spigot being sufficient to impart direction. Lt. Col. Blacker received a patent for this work in the early 1930s on a spigot discharged hollow-charge projectile. He continued to work and refine his weapon and in 1937 several prototypes were built by the Parnell Aircraft Company for testing by the British Ordnance Department in 1939. Blacker called this the “Arbalest.” It was, however, rejected in May of that year since the Ministry of Defense deemed the 2-inch mortar a better proposition as a bomb-thrower.
In 1940, Lt. Col. Blacker was reassigned and became involved in MD1 (Ministry of Defense 1) that was concerned with the development of unconventional and unorthodox weapons for clandestine use. In this environment, Lt. Col. Blacker redesigned the Arbalest and resubmitted it as a combined anti-tank and bombardment weapon that, he claimed, had the anti-tank effect of the 2-pounder gun and almost the same range as the 3-inch mortar. Although viewed somewhat skeptically by most of the approving authorities, it was accepted into service in 1941 as the 29mm Spigot Mortar, or the “Blacker Bombard.” It was used extensively by the Home Guard and Airfield Defense units.
Blacker then started work on a smaller, man-portable version that he called the “Baby Bombard.” However, before much work could be done with it, Lt. Col. Blacker was transferred to another post.
The prototype Baby Bombard sat at MD1 where it was eventually taken up by Major M. R. Jefferis (later Major-General Sir Millis Rowland Jefferis, KBE, MC). The 0.625 inch No. 1 “Baby Bombard” (the measurement being the diameter of the spigot) went into field trials in June 1941 before the Ordnance Board. It was not well received with the Ordnance Board reporting, “The Baby Bombard would prove ineffective as an anti-tank weapon under any conceivable conditions of employment.” This assessment was also the opinion of the Director of Artillery and the Assistant to the CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff). The problem wasn’t so much the delivery system of the bomb; it was the ineffectiveness of the hollow charge against armour. It was officially dropped on August 11, 1941.
Major Jefferis continued to work on the Baby Bombard concentrating on increasing the effectiveness of the hollow charge bomb in which he was successful and started to explain the new bomb in February 1942 to his superiors in different departments. The various authorities expressed interest and by mid-March, 1942, pilot models of the PIAT were being made. The trials using the new bomb proved to be successful and the weapon was given final approval on August 31, 1942 and went into production at Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd. (ICI). Eventually, some 15,000 units were produced and saw service from mid-1943 to 1950 with infantry units of Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations. The PIAT was used in all theaters of operation. The first PIAT combat action was with the Canadians during the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The PIAT was a simple, yet crude appearing weapon and was not without its faults. It was heavy and cumbersome. At longer ranges, the bomb’s trajectory became erratic and unreliable. Using it at extremely short ranges to assure a hit on tanks exposed the operators to highly increased danger. Cocking the weapon was extremely difficult due to the large spring. Though the spigot had to be cocked for the first shot, the recoil recocked the weapon automatically provided the firer held the weapon firmly. When fired, the gunner had to hold onto the trigger guard with his left hand pulling the weapon back hard against his shoulder. The trigger was so stiff that it took two fingers to operate and after pulling there was a noticeable pause while the spigot moved forward contacting the discharge cartridge inside the tail of the bomb thus firing the projectile. Unwary recruits tended to loosen their grip at this point, receiving a massive blow on the shoulder as the bomb flew off, and then finding that the spring had not been recocked.
Virtues of the PIAT were that it was man-portable and the hollow-charge bomb proved effective against German armor. It could also be used as a mortar with high or low angle of flight and could be used as a “house-buster.” And, unlike the M9 or M9A1 Bazooka, or the Panzerfaust, it could be fired from an enclosed position such as a room without risk to the firer and others due to there being no back-blast. It was used this way in innumerable street fights.
The Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank (PIAT) is a light, self-cocking, anti-tank weapon and is fired in its primary anti-tank role from the shoulder and projects a bomb that has a considerable armor piercing effect. The chief characteristics of the Projector are its simplicity, mobility, penetration, short range, and limited recoil when used correctly. The weapon is simple in design and construction, being easy to strip and maintain. Loading presents no problems and elaborate training is not required. Mobility is accomplished as a single man-portable weapon that weighs 32 pounds with a length of 39 inches. Penetration of armor plating by the High Explosive (HE) anti-tank round is about 4 inches at 115 yards (110 m) and proved most capable in defeating tanks and other armored vehicles. The short range of the Projector limited its effectiveness on tanks to approximately 100 yards, though when used in its secondary role as a high angle firing weapon against buildings, other light armored vehicles and indirect fire, effective range was 350 yards (320 m). The limited recoil allowed use without discomfort to the firer.
The PIAT Mk. 1 is a spigot-type projector that is fired from the shoulder. Externally, the PIAT consists of a projectile support and guides, spigot guide tube stopper, front support, outer casing, front sling swivels, folding foresight, slings, trigger assembly grip, folding backsight, hand grip, rear sling swivels and shoulder piece with shoulder pad and laced cover.
The projectile support is U-shaped, being open at the top to facilitate loading. At the rear of the projectile support and on the front end of the outer casing are guides for the loading clip, which is to be found on the tail tube of the projectile. These guides ensure the correct location of the tail tube relative to the spigot and hold the projectile in position, preventing the projectile from falling out of the support, until it is fired.
The spigot guide tube stopper is a shaped piece of cork, attached to the projector by a chain, used to plug the hole in the front end of the outer casing through which the spigot passes at the moment of firing. This stopper prevents dust and dirt from getting into the mechanism and can only be used when the spigot is pulled back and the weapon is cocked. It must be removed prior to loading a projectile into the projectile support. The placement and removal of the guide tube stopper is done manually.
The front support is fixed to the outer casing by a hinged metal band and a wing nut. Correct location of the front support is ensured by a pin in the band that fits into a hole in the outer casing as well as guides around the outer casing that the band fits into. The height of the early type front support is not adjustable. The base of the front support is smooth to enable the projector to be traversed easily when engaging a moving target.
The outer casing contains the mechanism. The sights and sling swivels are mounted directly on the outer casing and the front sling swivels are like rifle swivels, and are welded to the outer casing. Two rifle slings are fitted for carrying the weapon.
The foresight is a bead, which folds down into the foresight casing when not in use. It is capable of adjustment both vertically and laterally for zeroing purposes.
The backsight consist of a single leaf with two (later three) apertures, ranging from 50 to 80 to 110 yards respectively. When not in use, it folds down into the backsight casing.
The trigger mechanism casing has a safety catch on the right-hand side. The entire trigger mechanism can be removed for armourer’s attention by unscrewing two bolts and nuts.
A webbing gaiter is laced round the outer casing to provide a grip for the left hand when firing.
The shoulder piece is fitted with a shock absorbing pad and the whole is enclosed in a laced canvas cover.
Internally, the principle parts of the mechanisms are the spigot guide tube, spigot with fixed firing pin, sleeve bolt, main spring, sear, tripping lever, cocking rod and cocking rod tube.
The spigot guide tube is welded to the inside of the outer casing and acts as a guide to ensure the accurate location of the spigot at all points of its travel.
The spigot is a tube with a head of high-grade steel screwed to the front end. This head is machined to form a firing pin. The spigot is rigidly attached at the rear end to the sleeve bolt.
The sleeve bolt weighs 10 pounds and when in the rear position holds the mainspring in compression. On the forward end is screwed a plate which acts as a bent. The whole assembly is free to rotate in the outer casing – this prevents localized wear to the sleeve bolt plate, which might otherwise result through contact with the sear.
The main spring drives the sleeve bolt and spigot assembly forward when the trigger is pressed. The compression of this spring on the return of the spigot reduces the shock of recoil. When new, the length of the spring is 32 inches. If, owing to use, the length is reduced to 26 inches, the spring should be replaced by an armorer.
The sear is controlled by the trigger and holds the spigot and sleeve bolt in the cocked position against the compressed main spring.
The tripping lever forms the link between the trigger and the sear. On firing, the tripping lever is struck by the sleeve bolt and it disengages from the sear leaving the latter free to rise under the influence of its spring.
The cocking rod is screwed to the spigot, and is the means whereby the spigot assembly is drawn back to the cocked position when cocking by hand is necessary.
The rear of the cocking rod guide tube is screwed to the shoulder piece. It is provided with a drilled nut at the front end which engages with the enlarged end of the cocking rod when the shoulder piece is withdrawn to the rear to cock the weapon.
There were four types of ammunition provided: Bomb H.E./A.T.; Bomb, Practice Inert/A.T.; Bomb, Drill/A.T. and Shot, Practice/A.T.
The color of the Bomb, H.E./A.T. (High Explosive/Anti-Tank) is green. There are identification marks on the filling band or RED x-x-x-x. Also, particulars of filling and Lot No., etc., are on the head. The Bomb consists of the fuze which, when fitted, is held in place in the nose of the bomb by a thimble. The body contains the explosive filling. The tail tube contains the cartridge and acts as a gun barrel. The drum tail attaches to the rear of the tail tube. The loading clip is a spring ring that is clipped to the end of the tail tube. This loading clip engages behind the guides on the front end of the weapon outer casing and serves to locate the bomb when in the loaded position.
For transit purposes, the bombs are carried in damp-proof ammunition carriers, each containing three bombs and identified by RED x-x-x-x on each container. The bombs are cartridged on issue, but until required they are unfuzed. The fuze is carried in a fuze container that is clipped to the tail of each bomb, the place of the fuze in the bomb being occupied by a transit piece. The tail tube is closed by a paper dust plug.
The Bomb, Practice Inert/A.T. is colored black and marked INERT in white letters on the body and yellow ring, 1/2 inch wide, round the body. It is similar in form to the HE/AT bomb but the HE filing is replaced by an equivalent weight of inert material and the fuze is replaced by a solid nose piece. This ammunition is cartridged on issue and when fired has the same trajectory as the Bomb, HE/AT. It can only be fired once. The ammunition carrier is identified by a 1/2-inch yellow ring on each container. On no account may it be used for drill purposes.
The Bomb, Drill/A.T. is colored black and has DRILL in white letters on the body. This bomb is similar in form to the Bomb, H.E./A.T., but contains no explosive filling or cartridge. The fuze container holds an inert drill fuze. The tail tube is plugged. This bomb is for drill purposes only and the plug in the tail tube must on no account be removed. The ammunition carrier is identified by each container marked DRILL in white letters.
SHOT, Practice/A.T. is colored white. This practice shot consists of a heavy steel tube screwed into a solid steel head. It is designed for training personnel in the firing of the weapon and be re-cartridged for further use a number of times. The tube is grooved at the rear end for the attachment of a loading clip. Each packing box for this type holds 20 bombs and a cleaning brush. The cartridges and loading clips are issued separately.
There is a special adaptor for the use of SHOT, Practice/A.T. and consists of a shallow steel trough with a hook clip at the front end. At the rear end a slot is cut through which the loading clip and the rear part of the cartridge fall clear. There is a hinged bar across the rear of this slot, and a screw, with a knurled nut for locking purposes, is hinged under the adaptor.
The object of this adaptor is to enable the practice shot to be fired from the projectile support by compensating for the smaller diameter of the shot, compared with the service round, and the absence of a drum tail. It is fitted to the weapon by first swinging the small hinged bar across the adaptor. Then slide the adaptor into the projectile support from the front with the smooth surface uppermost and the hook clip towards the front. When the hook clip has gripped the front of the projectile support, the knurled nut will drop through the cartridge clearing hole and the screw swivel will enter the slot provided. Check that the spring washer is immediately under the knurled nut and tighten this up hard.
Cocking and Uncocking
When the weapon is uncocked, the spigot and firing pin will protrude from the spigot guide tube into the projectile support and the spigot guide tube stopper will not be in position.
Cocking the weapon from the standing position, check that the safety catch lever is in the firing (forward) position and that the sights are down. Stand the weapon vertically on the shoulder piece with the trigger guard on the right. See that the slings are clear of the weapon. Place a foot on each horn of the shoulder piece and, keeping the heels on the ground, grip the shoulder piece under the insteps. Leaning over the weapon and bending the knees outwards, take a firm hold on the trigger guard grip with both hands. Pull the outer casing straight up for about 1/4-inch and then twist it anti-clockwise through 45 degrees. This disengages the rear cap stud from the bayonet slot in the shoulder piece body. Straightening the knees and body in one quick action, pull the outer casing tube up against the pressure of the main spring until the sear is heard to engage. The movement required is about 12 inches. Then move the safety catch lever to the safe (backward) position. Allow the outer casing to descend slowly to the shoulder piece and re-engage the rear cap stud in the bayonet slot of the shoulder piece. Insert the guide tube stopper if the weapon is not to be fired at once.
Upon initial usage, or if the weapon fails to automatically recock, when firing in the prone position, the following method of cocking can be carried out with the least exposure to the firer, who must keep the upper part of his body in contact with the ground throughout. Check that the safety catch lever is in the firing (forward) position and lower the sights. Turn on the right side and draw the weapon down until the shoulder piece is opposite the feet. Then follow the same cocking procedures outlined above.
Uncocking the weapon is to be carried out in the standing position. Remove the spigot guide tube stopper if inserted. Stand the weapon vertically on the shoulder piece and keeping the heels on the ground, grip the shoulder piece under the insteps. Lean over the weapon, grip the trigger guard grip with both hands and pull the outer casing straight up for about 1/4-inch then twist it anti-clockwise through 45 degrees thus disengaging the rear cap stud from the bayonet slot in the shoulder piece body. Pull the outer casing straight up to the end of its free travel, about 12 inches. Move the safety catch lever to the firing (forward position. Gripping the weapon firmly with both hands, pull the trigger with the right thumb and allow the outer casing to descend slowly under control to the shoulder piece under the action of the main spring. Re-engage the rear cap stud in the bayonet slot of the shoulder piece.
When cocked, the sleeve bolt and the spigot, to which it is rigidly attached, are held to the rear by the sear; the sleeve bolt holding the main spring in compression. When the trigger is pressed, the sear is lowered releasing the sleeve bolt and spigot that then move forward under the influence of the main spring. The spigot travels along the spigot guide tube. It enters the tail tube of the bomb and the firing pin strikes the cartridge cap, which in turns ignites the propellant charge, thus firing the projectile. The back pressure of the gases drives the rear portion of the cartridge against the firing pin and this checks the forward movement of the spigot and sleeve bolt and then returns them to the cocked position compressing the main spring.
The initial forward movement of the sleeve bolt depresses the tripping lever and disengages the sear from the trigger. The sear is thus left free to rise under the influence of its spring, whenever the sleeve bolt returns to the cocked position.
The Bomb, H.E./A.T. is issued with the cartridge in position. To fuze the bomb, detach the fuze container from the bomb tail, extract the fuze and retain the fuze container. Remove the thimble from the bomb nose by pressing it towards the back of the bomb and turning it anti-clockwise. Remove the transit plug and place it in the fuze container for use if the bomb has later to be unfuzed. Insert the fuze with the sharp nose pointing towards the front. Place the thimble over the fuze and lock it into position by turning it clockwise until home. To prepare the bomb for loading, remove the dust plug from the tail tube.
Loading consists of three specific actions normally carried out by a No. 2. He will generally load from the left of the weapon with the right hand, but must be able to carry out the three actions with either hand. The first action is to grip the tail tube and drum tail lightly in the hand with the bomb head pointing forward and downward. Place the head of the bomb in the center of the projectile support and push the nose of the bomb under the front ring of the support. The second action is to slide the bomb forward until the tail can be lowered. Keeping the loading clip against the front end cap of the weapon, engage it behind the two guide plates. The third and final action is to release the grip on the bomb, press it down with the flat of the hand until the drum tail rests in the projectile support thus bringing the tail tube in line with the spigot guide tube and in position for the spigot to enter making sure that the loading clip is behind the guide plates and the drum tail is fully down.
The sights are a bead foresight and a leaf backsight with three apertures ranging from 50 to 110 yards. Although the weapon is fired from the shoulder, the action that takes place in the weapon on firing is very different from that of a rifle or machine gun. When the trigger action has released the spigot, a total weight of about 12 pounds travels forward for 1/10th of a second before the round is fired. The backward thrust on the shoulder is increased and the balance of the weapon changes slightly. The aim has to be kept steady against these effects that require a firm grip and some practice.
There are two basic means of firing: standing from a slit trench or lying prone from a shallow trench.
The PIAT was modified in 1944 so that the weapon could be used in a secondary role for high angle firing, much like a mortar. The modifications were a telescopic front monopod that was fitted in place of the original static monopod. A straight shoulder piece replaced the original curved pattern and the quadrant sight, affixed to the rear sight casing, was graduated for ranges from 100 yards to 370 yards, high and low angle, was fitted.
The second model front monopod consists of an inner and outer tube with a lever fitted to the left hand side of the outer tube engaging one of a series of serrations in the wall of the inner tube under the action of a spring. By pressing in the lever and raising or lowering the weapon, the height of the front monopod may be varied as required. The monopod is clamped to the outer casing of the weapon by similar means to those used in the original Mk. I model and the square metal base is also identical with the original base.
The shoulder piece was modified by being straightened and an additional hole was drilled in the rear end cap. The shoulder piece could then be rotated anti-clockwise through 90 degrees into a horizontal position and locked in this position by the rear cap retainer thus providing a more solid “footing” when braced on the ground. When fired from the shoulder at close-range targets, the shoulder piece is in a vertical position to be placed against the shoulder for support.
The quadrant sight comprised a plate calibrated in yards from 100 to 370 and fitted with a leveling bubble. The quadrant sight is fitted to the rear sight casing by means of a lengthened rear sight leaf axis screws. It is free to rotate through 90 degrees and can be clamped in the required position by means of a knurled nub and spring washer.
A white line is marked on the rear sight casing at right angles to the major axis of the weapon. When the low angle zero line of the quadrant sight is coincident with the white line and the weapon horizontal, the bubble of the sprit level is centrally disposed.
These modifications allowed the PIAT to be used as a crude mortar by placing the rotated shoulder piece on the ground and the front of the weapon elevated by the adjustable monopod. This allowed the PIAT to be used at greater distances, up to 350 yards (320 m), in “house-braking” roles with a high arching trajectory to particularly knock out buildings, houses, and bunkers used by the enemy.
The PIAT figured in a number of immediate combat actions that resulted in six Victoria Crosses being awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces, four of which are highlighted below.
Fusilier Frank Arthur Jefferson
In repelling a German counterattack against his unit along a section of the Gustav Line during the Italian Campaign on May 16, 1944, Fusilier Frank Jefferson destroyed a Panzer IV tank using a PIAT The account is taken up from a supplement of The London Gazette, 13 July 1944: The KING has been graciously pleased to approve award of the VICTORIA CROSS to: No. 3663590 Fusilier Francis Arthur Jefferson, The Lancashire Fusiliers (Ulverston, Lancs.). On 16th May, 1944, during an attack on the Gustav Line, an anti-tank obstacle held up some of our tanks, leaving the leading Company of Fusilier Jefferson’s Battalion to dig in on the hill without tanks or anti-tank guns. The enemy counter-attacked with infantry and two Mark IV tanks, which opened fire at short range causing a number of casualties, and eliminating one PIAT group entirely. As the tanks advanced towards the partially dug trenches, Fusilier Jefferson, entirely on his own initiative, seized a PIAT and running forward alone under heavy fire, took up a position behind a hedge; as he could not see properly, he came into the open, and standing up under a hail of bullets, fired at the leading tank which was now only twenty yards away. It burst into flames and all the crew were killed. Fusilier Jefferson then reloaded the PIAT and proceeded towards the second tank, which withdrew before he could get within range. By this time our own tanks had arrived and the enemy counter-attack was smashed with heavy casualties. Fusilier Jefferson’s gallant act not merely saved the lives of his Company and caused many casualties to the Germans, but also broke up the enemy counter-attack and had a decisive effect on the subsequent operation. His supreme gallantry and disregard of personal risk contributed very largely to the success of the action.
Rifleman Ganju Lama
In an area of Burma, Indian Army Rifleman Ganju Lama on June 12, 1944, knocked out several Japanese tanks using a PIAT advancing on his unit’s position that prevented his unit from advancing. The account is taken up from a supplement of The London Gazette, 7 September, 1944: The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to: No. 78763 Rifleman Ganju Lama, 7th Gurkha Rifles, Indian Army. In Burma, on the morning of the 12th June, 1944, the enemy put down an intense artillery barrage lasting an hour on our positions north of the village of Ningthoukhong. This heavy artillery fire knocked out several bunkers and caused heavy casualties, and was immediately followed by a very strong enemy attack supported by five medium tanks. After fierce hand to hand fighting, the perimeter was driven in- in one place and enemy infantry, supported by three medium tanks, broke through, pinning our troops to the ground with intense fire. “B” Company, 7th Gurkha Rifles, was ordered to counter-attack and restore the situation. Shortly after passing the starting line it came under heavy enemy medium machine gun and tank machine gun fire at point blank range, which covered all lines of approach. Rifleman Ganju Lama, the No. 1 of the PIAT gun, on his own initiative, with great coolness and complete disregard for his own safety, crawled forward and engaged the tanks single handed. In spite of a broken left wrist and two other wounds, one in his right hand and one in his leg, caused by withering cross fire concentrated upon him, Rifleman Ganju Lama succeeded in bringing his gun into action within thirty yards of the enemy tanks and knocked out first one and then another, the third tank being destroyed by an anti-tank gun. In spite of his serious wounds, he then moved forward and engaged with grenades the tank crews, who now attempted to escape. Not until he had killed or wounded them all, thus enabling his company to push forward, did he allow himself to be taken back to the Regimental Aid Post to have his wounds dressed. Throughout this action Rifleman Ganju Lama, although very seriously wounded, showed a complete disregard for his own personal safety, outstanding devotion to duty and a determination to destroy the enemy which was an example and an inspiration to all ranks. It was solely due to his prompt action and brave conduct that a most critical situation was averted, all positions regained and very heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy.
Major Robert Henry Cain
During the Battle of Arnhem in September, 1944, with a German Tiger tank advancing on his company’s position, a PIAT was used by Major Robert Henry Cain to disable the tank. In a later assault by three German Panzer IV tanks, Major Cain again effectively used the PIAT causing the tanks to retreat. The account is taken up from a supplement of The London Gazette, 31 October 1944: The KING has been graciously pleased to approve award of the VICTORIA CROSS to: Captain (temporary Major) Robert Henry Cain (129484), The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, (attd. The South Staffordshire Regiment) (I Airborne Division) (Salcombe, Devon). In Holland on 19th September, 1944, Major Cain was commanding a rifle company of the South Staffordshire Regiment during the battle of Arnhem when his company was cut off from the rest of the battalion and during the next six days was closely engaged with enemy tanks, self-propelled guns and infantry. The Germans made repeated attempts to break into the company position by infiltration and had they succeeded in doing so the whole situation of the Airborne Troops would have been jeopardized. Major Cain, by his outstanding devotion to duty and remarkable powers of leadership, was to a large extent personally responsible for saving a vital sector from falling into the hands of the enemy. On 20th September a Tiger tank approached the area held by his company and Major Cain went out alone to deal with it armed with a PIAT. Taking up a position he held his fire until the tank was only 20 yards away when he opened up. The tank immediately halted and turned its guns on him, shooting away a corner of the house near where this officer was lying. Although wounded by machine gun bullets and falling masonry, Major Cain continued firing until he had scored several direct hits, immobilized the tank and supervised the bringing up of a 75mm howitzer which completely destroyed it. Only then would he consent to have his wounds dressed. The next morning this officer drove off three more tanks by the fearless use of his PIAT, on each occasion leaving cover and taking up position in open ground with complete disregard for his personal safety. During the following days, Major Cain was everywhere where danger threatened, moving amongst his men and encouraging them by his fearless example to hold out. He refused rest and medical attention in spite of the fact that his hearing had been seriously impaired because of a perforated eardrum and he was suffering from multiple wounds. On the 25th September the enemy made a concerted attack on Major Cain’s position, using self-propelled guns, flame throwers and infantry. By this time the last PIAT had been put out of action and Major Cain was armed with only a light 2” mortar. However, by a skillful use of this weapon and his daring leadership of the few men still under his command, he completely demoralized the enemy who, after an engagement lasting more than three hours, withdrew in disorder. Throughout the whole course of the Battle of Arnhem, Major Cain showed superb gallantry. His powers of endurance and leadership were the admiration of all his fellow officers and stories of his valour were being constantly exchanged amongst the troops. His coolness and courage under incessant fire could not be surpassed.
Private Ernest Alvia (“Smokey”) Smith
In action that helped secure a bridgehead on the Savio River in Italy the night of October 21-22, 1944, Canadian Army Private Ernest Alvia (“Smokey”) Smith destroyed a German Mark V Panther tank using a PIAT and assisted in disabling two self-propelled guns that were attacking his small group and then, using a Thompson submachine gun, killed or repelled attacks by about 30 enemy infantry support troops. The account is taken up from a supplement of The London Gazette, 19 December 1944: The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to: No. K 52880 Private Ernest Alvia Smith, The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. In Italy on the night of 21st/22nd October, 1944, a Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Savio River. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were selected as the spearhead of the attack and in weather most unfavourable to the operation they crossed the river and captured their objectives in spite of strong opposition from the enemy. Torrential rain had caused the Savio River to rise six feet in five hours and as the soft vertical banks made it impossible to bridge the river, no tanks or anti-tank guns could be taken across the raging stream to the support of the rifle companies. As the right forward company was consolidating its objective it was suddenly counter-attacked by a troop of three Mark V Panther tanks supported by two self-propelled guns and about thirty infantry and the situation appeared almost hopeless. Under heavy fire from the approaching enemy tanks, Private Smith, showing great initiative and inspiring leadership, led his PIAT Group of two men across an open field to a position from which the PIAT could best be employed. Leaving one man on the weapon, Private Smith crossed the road with a companion, and obtained another PIAT. Almost immediately an enemy tank came down the road firing its machine guns along the line of the ditches. Private Smith’s comrade was wounded. At a range of thirty feet and having to expose himself to the full view of the enemy, Private Smith fired the PIAT and hit the tank, putting it out of action. Ten German infantry immediately jumped off the back of the tank and charged him with Schmeissers and grenades. Without hesitation Private Smith moved out onto the road and with his Tommy gun at point blank range, killed four Germans and drove the remainder back. Almost immediately another tank opened fire and more enemy infantry closed in on Smith’s position. Obtaining some abandoned Tommy gun magazines from a ditch, he steadfastly held his position, protecting his comrade and fighting the enemy with his Tommy gun until they finally gave up and withdrew in disorder. One tank and both self-propelled guns had been destroyed by this time, but yet another tank swept the area with fire from a longer range. Private Smith, still showing utter contempt for enemy fire, helped his wounded friend to cover and obtained medical aid for him behind a nearby building. He then returned to his position beside the road to await the possibility of a further enemy attack. No further immediate attack developed and as a result the battalion was able to consolidate the bridgehead position so vital to the success of the whole operation, which led to the eventual capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River. Thus, by the dogged determination, outstanding devotion to duty and superb gallantry of this private soldier, his comrades were so inspired that the bridgehead was held firm against all enemy attacks, pending the arrival of tanks and anti-tank guns some hours later.
(Technical information taken from the British manuals Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank Mk. 1; Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank Mk. 1, Supplement No. 1, 1944; and Small Arms Training Volume 1, Pamphlet No. 24, Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank (PIAT) 1943 (Provisional). (Courtesy Royal Armouries, Leeds and private collection)
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V18N2 (April 2014)|