War of words – ‘Bazooka’

with Marc DeSantis

A signature piece of kit for American GIs in World War II, the bazooka was a tubular, shoulder-fired, 2.36-inch rocket launcher. It fired a projectile bearing a shaped-charge warhead, which contained a hollow cavity lined with metal.

Soldier holding an M1 Bazooka, 1943. IMAGE: U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph/Wikimedia Commons.

On contact with a target, the shaped explosive detonated, sending a slender jet of plasma screaming in a single, highly focused direction. This 36,000ºC blowtorch instantly melted its way through armour. The bazooka would, it was hoped, enable American infantry to stop German Panzers on their own.

Beginning in 1942, the US Army adopted the rocket launcher in several models, including the M1, M1A1, M9, and M9A1. The popular name for the weapon, ‘bazooka’, derives from its supposed resemblance to the bazooka, a musical instrument invented and played by Bob Burns, an American comedian of the 1930s.

The word had in fact appeared in print as far back as 1935, long before the development of the rocket launcher, with Newsweek magazine reporting that December that ‘Burns peps up his lengthy yarns with periodic outbursts on his own invention, the bazooka, a trombone-like instrument confected of two gas-pipes and a whisky funnel’.

Used heavily in the European theatre in the last year of the war, the bazooka’s rockets typically had little or no effect against the frontal armour of German Panther and Panzer IV tanks, so shots were usually taken instead at their less-protected flanks and rears. The bazooka was also very often employed against static German strongpoints, a role in which the weapon performed well.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the bazooka was paid a grand compliment when the Germans, after studying examples captured in North Africa in early 1943, promptly fielded a homegrown version: the 8.8cm Panzerschreck rocket launcher.