Just as the machine gun had altered the state of battlefields prior, the "tank" also arrived with much attention in World War 1 to help change the course of the critical, later battles. From this, thought was given to developing weapons to counter these steel beasts that now proved enemy defense somewhat moot. Ironically, it took some time for the Germans to appreciate the value of the combat tank and it was not until World War 2 that the Panzer was used to begin the enslavement of Europe and alter the course of history. Development of tank-killing weapons also persisted into this period and with good reason - the tank battles of World War 2 proved the largest on record - particularly after the stunning German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 through "Operation Barbarossa", officially beginning the East Front.
As armor usage proliferated along all fronts, German engineers began ascertaining the value of current tank-killing weapons. To this point, the German Army relied heavily on artillery systems to deliver hollow charge projectiles when attempting to defeat enemy armor at range and several World War 1-era anti-tank rifles existed. However, these proved limiting and many such designs precluded their use by mobile forward infantry and airborne troopers alike while also delivering the projectile much too fast and thereby reducing the optimal effects of the warhead as an armor-defeating weapon. As such, there was a shift in thinking to develop a rocket-assisted hollow charge warhead through a more portable means. The caliber of choice was 8.8cm which proved capable of defeating all armor of the day. As the Germans held little experience in a proper, portable rocket delivery system, the launch tube would be sat upon a two-wheeled carriage with integrated gun shield.
The resulting weapon became the 8.8cm Raketenwerfer 43 - better known as the "Puppchen" (meaning "dolly"). The weapon appeared as nothing more than a typical artillery piece of the period though made much more compact and able to be broken down into seven different loads for transport by pack animal, man or vehicle. The system consisted of a launch tube with a conical muzzle, fed from the breech as a conventional artillery piece and fired via a twin hand grip arrangement (as in a heavy machine gun). Sighting was simply accomplished by looking down the barrel in most cases - this limiting effective engagement ranges to several hundred yards. A thin gun shield protected the firer from small arms fire and shell splinters while direct line-of-sight vision was retained via a square cutout in the armor along the left side. Instructions were dutifully printed along the inside of the gun shield to help train even the most green of operators. The two-wheeled carriage was heavily spoked and useful in hauling the gun about (the wheels were further removable if required for static mounting). Some winterized forms incorporated skis for easier movement about snow. Unlike conventional artillery pieces, which utilized some form of recoil service, the Puppchen lacked any sort of mechanism and relied on its own weight to absorb forces caused by the igniting propellant. As a whole, the weapon promoted a low silhouette which forced the gunner/gunnery crew to assume an equally low profile when firing. The barrel allowed for an elevation range of -18 to +15 degrees and traversal of 60-degrees.
The weapon featured a length of 9 feet, 5 inches with a barrel of 5 feet, 3 inches. When set up to fire, the system weighed in at 220lb and this weight ballooned to 320lb when set up to travel. Each 88mm projectile weighed 5.86lb which required a steady supply from a vehicle or other means. Maximum range was listed at 760 yards though, due to the limited sighting device, optimal ranges for engaging enemy armor fell to approximately 250 yards and under.
The Puppchen entered German Army service in 1943 and was placed immediately into action where its 88mm projectile accordingly proved its worth. However, the crew was usually within lethal range of their target and offered little protection. Rate-of-fire was high, allowing a trained crew to fire off some 10 projectiles per minute. Portability was decent considering the largely steel nature of the design, though its ability to traverse terrain on its own wheels or be broken down for travel assisted some. By and large, Puppchens proved effective on the battlefield but logistically is where they suffered - they were complex and expensive to produce for wartime Germany and alternatives were readily sought despite their adoption into service.
Almost as soon as the Puppchen began entering widespread use in 1943, production was officially halted in favor of the Raketenpanzerbusche RPzB 43 (the "Panzerschreck") - a shoulder-mounted 88mm rocket launcher more akin to modern projectors. The RPzB 43 was born of the American "Bazooka" system of which many were captured in the fighting in Tunisia and, in turn, studied at length by German engineers. The Bazooka delivery system proved a good match for the Germans in that all that was required was a simplified shoulder-held launch tube and integrated ignition system for the projectile. This made for much simpler operation and, more importantly, much simpler production in large numbers. The adoption of the RPzB 43 spelt the death knell for the Puppchen and all like-weapons of the German Army of the period.
From that point onwards, the Puppchen existed in only the original production batch numbers. However, their battlefield use did not cease as may be expected for they continued into service through to the end of the war in May of 1945 and used in both offensive and defensive manners across the remainder of the fighting - particularly in the Italian campaign which saw large stocks of Puppchens captured by the advancing Allies - ironically, these were studied at great length by the capturers.
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