Ground Attack Aircraft: Myth of the Tank-Busters

A popular misconception I have noticed is that ground attack aircraft were used successfully as “tank-busters” of “tank-killers”, and that aircraft were seemingly the largest threat to tanks. I know some of you don’t think this, but I think a good portion of you might. I will focus my attention on the AT abilities of the Hawker Typhoon and the P-47 Thunderbolt against German armor. I will also quickly go over examples from the Eastern Front.

In NW Europe the Typhoon and the P-47 are regarded as an effective weapon against German Armor. CAS pilots claimed hundreds of panzers dead due to their bombs, rockets, and cannons. The problem is that this just isn’t true.

The weapons employed by these aircraft are just not good at knocking out tanks. The 20 mm cannon of the Typhoon did not have the ability to punch through German armor. Even the weak roof armor was near impenetrable due to the angle of attack and range. It is likely that some panzers were disabled by 20 mm fire, but just a handful.  The .50 cals of the P-47 and other American aircraft do not have legitimate chance of killing a panzer. It has been claimed that P-47 pilots would have the .50 cal. armor-piercing bullets penetrate the underside of vehicles after ricocheting off the road. That is just BS to put it frankly.



*Hitting those external fuel tanks didn’t KO tanks, but it did make them run out of fuel faster. Also how do you tell if what you’re shooting at is a Tiger and not a half-track?

These aircraft also carried rockets and bombs. Both of these were much more devastating when they hit armor. However that is the problem; they had to hit their target. Both bombs and rockets were utterly abysmal in terms of accuracy. A trial conducted by the RAF had fired 64 rockets from 4 Tiffies(2 flights) at a stationary Panther painted white. A total of 3 hits were recorded giving the rockets a 4.69% accuracy rating in the most perfect of circumstances. Near misses did no damage to the tank. In real combat the Panzers would have some some camouflage, some flak protection(which downed hundreds of Allied fighter-bombers over NW Europe and greatly reduced accuracy of bombs and rockets), and crews that would know to seek cover when they realize they are being shot at. Bombs were even worse in regards to accuracy. It had been concluded that overall it took 800 rockets or 3500 bombs to hit a tank sized target in battle conditions.

The Target Panther

Now, regardless that aircraft weaponry was near useless against tanks, the RaF and USAAC both claimed hundreds of panzers. Some documented cases show that these claims are horribly exaggerated. Near La Baleine, France Typhoons conducted 99 sorties on a German Armored Column consisting of ~50 tanks. The pilots claimed to have KO’d 17 of the tanks. The British Army’s No. 2 ORS investigated the area and found that there was a total of 9 tanks, 2 of which were actually destroyed by rockets or just 11% of the original claim. Around Mortain the US and British pilots claimed to have destroyed/probably destroyed a total of 120 tanks. The actual number of destroyed AFVs in the area is close to 45 tanks, only 9 seemed to be victims of airstrikes or 7% of the original claim. At the Falaise Gap the Fighter-Bombers claimed 3x more tanks(391) than the Germans actually lost(133). The number of tanks lost to aircraft seemed to be 15 in the Falaise area or 4% of the original claim. Things didn’t go much better in the Ardennes with air units claiming 66 tanks in an area which under inspection was found that only 1 of 101 tanks were knocked out by air and another 6 likely knocked out by air. As this has shown, these claims about tanks getting decimated by aircraft doesn’t really hold any water.

Now the fighter-bombers did take their toll on German armor. Aircraft were particularly good at destroying motor transports and disrupted the logistics of the Germans. Taking out fuel trucks, infantry, depots, etc. can not be ignored in indirectly destroying German armor. The psychological impact on fighter-bombers on German tanks seemed to be quite high as well. German crews claimed to be terrified of Typhoons and P-47s and would bail-out at the first sign of an aircraft attack. German divisional histories emphasized the role of fighter-bombers in engagements(even if they did no significant damage). There is some skepticism towards these histories as they do not accurately describe what happened to the tanks lost to aircraft or the high number of tanks found abandoned.

Now lets talk about the Luftwaffe and the VVS(Soviet Air Force) over Kursk. The German cases are usually poorly documented, but one involving IV/9th Ground Assault Wing(commanded by Bruno Meyer) on July 8th, 1943 is a well documented about the Luftwaffe claims and the actual casualties sustained by the Soviets. The Hs-129 B-2s of the Luftwaffe were the planes involved. These planes were armed with the Mk 103 which actually was potentially deadly for tanks unlike most aircraft cannons but did not have a lot of ammunition either. The Hs-129s attacked a group of tanks belonging to 26th Tank Brigade of the II Guards Tank Corps. The pilots claimed 40-50 tanks destroyed out of 60 seen, a devastating attack. The problem is that 26th Tank Brigade lost 7 to 11 tanks in total on the date in question, a further problem is that they engaged German ground units that could have done the casualties. Whatever the case may be, the German figure of 40-50 tanks destroyed is off. Now, does this apply to Rudel who claimed ~500 tanks destroyed? Likely. I have serious doubts that Rudel has even killed more tanks than Carius and Knispel to be honest.

Does this really deserve to be called a Panzerknacker?

The IL-2 Sturmovik’s performance has also been overrated as a “tank-buster”. Lets look at some examples from Kursk again. The VVS claimed to have knocked out ~270 tanks of 3rd Panzer Division within 2 hrs. 3rd Panzer Division only had 90 tanks and the division fought against Soviet AT guns and AFVs which likely caused the majority of the divisions casualties(~49 tanks) during Kursk. IL-2s also claimed to have taken out 240 German tanks of 17th Panzer Division which had a total of 67 tanks. 17th Panzer did not record any abnormal losses coming from the air during Kursk. The IL-2′s AT weapons were not that good at killing tanks much like most of these “tank-busters”. The 23 mm cannon was lucky to penetrate and the rockets used by the IL-2 lacked the power of the Western Allied rockets. the PTAB bombs likely were the most effective weapon when used in mass(280 per IL-2), but they still lack the accuracy to be efficient.

I sorta doubt the probability that even one of these will hit its intended target.

In closing, I hope that my attempt to inform/convince you has worked. The “tank-busting” aircraft of WWII didn’t “bust” enough tanks to cause a real difference.  CAS aircraft from all nations proved that their roles during WWII were against soft targets and large strategic points(bridges, buildings, etc.). The tankers, AT men, and artillery men are the ones who killed enemy tanks and to say that they didn’t and that it was these planes is just wrong.


Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe 1943-45 by Dr. Ian Gooderson

Air Power in the Age of Total War by John Buckley

Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq by Stephen Budiansky

C. Lawrence & N. Zetterling @ The Dupuy Institute Forum link who have listed their sources. They go more in depth than I have here.

47 thoughts on “Ground Attack Aircraft: Myth of the Tank-Busters

  1. What about the Ju 87′s (+variants)? I know that their kill count is probably just as inaccurate, but were they more effective than these other planes?

    • The steeper dive angle they took likely made their bombs and cannons slightly more effective. The lack of sufficient ammunition they carry is a major negative though. Still highly overrated. I also have not run across an engagement when Stukas claim kills and those kills can be verified.

      • I know of some tank-kills of Stukas, mainly happened in France 1941.
        In one book I got lying here there is a photo of a french tank (Hotchkiss, don’t know the exact model) upside down and about 10meters above the ground (flying of course) – a 250kilo bomb of a Stuka exploded 1meter behind it.
        But yeah, pretty much every tank-killing aircraft of WW2 is overrated. At least in case of destroying tanks, they were quite effective in destroying the Axis infrastructure.

  2. I think this is a well written article and agree with the facts as stated by the author. I’d also agree that the true number of tanks destroyed is relatively insignificant compared to the total number of tanks in any given theater of operation. And I applaud the authors work to bring clarity to an area of military history that is ripe with legends and myths.

    However, I disagree with the authors assessment of how effective they were. The focus of this article is on tanks only as counted by the forces who were being attacked and only counted as destroyed. That’s is too narrow a view to properly asses the effectiveness of these aircraft. This analysis fails to address all of the destroyed soft skinned vehicles and other support equipment that tanks depend on to operate effectively. While the total number of tanks destroyed is very small, the numbers of support and ancillary vehicles destroyed were very significant. In my opinion if you look at how armored units were forced to move, be delayed, and harassed by these aircraft, their impact on the battlefield far exceed their ability to destroy tanks.

    • I did mention their worth against soft targets and the psyche of the enemy. I know it was rather brief, but I tried to focus on the direct air-tank action. I know the Operation Think Tank conference talks about the worth of these aircraft against soft targets and such.

      Also you forgot an s in assess. Hilarious.

      • People overstate the numbers of tanks the Germans had on the Western Front too.

        Reading the 2nd TAF volumes then reading books by Spitfire, Typhoon and Tempest pilots (sadly no memoirs exist of twin engine aircraft assigned to the 2nd TAF) assigned to the 2nd TAF really shows that they were not used against tanks all that much simply because there were not that many tanks to shoot up. Certainly the 2nd TAF was used against trains, airfields and columns of soft skinned vehicles more than anything else. However the 500 and 1000lbs bombs used by the 2 TAF aircraft were proven to be effective with a near miss against tanks – the tank itself wasn’t damage but the crew were scared shitless and manoeuvring near a bomb crater could lead to detracking and subsequent abandonment.

        @ Baumer, the RAF conducted an investigation about this kind of thing after the war. It basically proved the tactic used by the 9th AF and 2nd TAF of going after trains and supply columns and provided evidence, as factual as it can be, that the number of tanks directly taken out by aircraft was minimal. However a hit by a rocket could be devastating.

        @ Priory_of_Sion If you can find copies, read the 2nd TAF volumes 2 and 3. They’re really interesting if you’re wanting to learn about how that tactical air force worked plus has lots of facts and figures.

  3. Have you seen the documentary series “A Fighter Pilot’s Story by Quentin Aanenson”? He tells all how Ground support was done with a P-47.


    The guns and cannons are not effective versus hard targets, but as noted earlier they did well versus soft targets. The main weapons for the GAA are the bombs and rockets. I remember reading D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor, the Germans hated the Typhoons because of their 5inch (RP3) rocket attacks. If the Typhoons were not effective in ground attacks, then why would German Veterans note their attacks in their book publications from their WWII service?

    • Anecdotal evidence != evidence. It might have happened but the numbers don’t look too good. Wonder if anyone found out what infantry battalion was under attack to see what actually happened.

      Being shot at by rockets is frightening and therefore noteworthy. They might have heard stories of a panzer being hit by a rocket and being destroyed and therefore they perceive the Typhoons as a legitimate and scary threat.

      • In the case of Normandy Intelligence operations misled the Axis forces into deploying forces in the north of France. Resistance actions disrupted the rail network forcing armoured units onto the roads slowing down their deployment in Normandy and making them much more vulnerable to air attack. The units travelled with their own Panzer Grenadiers and all the much more vulnerable support units that they needed to be effective for any period in the field. This is mainly why air superiority forced them to only move at night.

      • Someone just point out this to me

        “The last time I checked, 9 of 17 was 53%. Even if you take away the two destroyed by rockets, 7 of 17 is 41%. That is a far cry from the 11% claim he is making”

        • Learn to analyze text:

          - Pilots say that they destroyed 17 tanks
          - Search group finds only 9 destroyed tanks
          - Only 2 are destroyed by rockets (that is, by aircraft, the other 7 are destroyed by usual means, arty shells, enemy tanks, infantry weapons, etc)

          2 / 17 = 11,7%

    • WHy? he bigger fanbois are IL2+Stuka guys by a mile.

      And since we all agree that most planes were useless vs hard targets the fact the P47 used 50 cals is ecven better, since it carried like 5x the ammo.

    • Why? If anything, it proves that the Allied ground forces were better than usually claimed.

  4. I was the first one to be disproved by Priory in my T110 thread and now am a preacher of the “Tank Buster Myth”
    Im glad you finally made it wide known. – Storm

  5. Also how do you tell if what your shooting at is a Tiger and not a half-track?
    if what your shooting at is a Tiger
    what your shooting

    • Haven’t seen any myself. Having 4 rounds of ammo doesn’t seem adequate when you’re flying @ 300 km/h while trying to hit a target the size of a tank though. Seems only 25 were ever built, I’d doubt a single one ever knocked out a tank. If one did then it is a freak occurrence than probably isn’t documented.

      • Yeah I can tell you from ground combat that a Mk19 on a hummer going 30 kmh is not gonna hit target with 4 rounds 9/10. And that is just 1 plain of fire, not depth as well.

        I would bet not 1 tan kwas killed as well. Also the A10 Warthog uises 300+ rounds to hit a tank.

        I do bet it could hit ships and TBH even then I wouldnt bet on it everytime. Have you ever seen film of a A Carrier from a nose cam? It looks like a cork.

        • Oh yeah. As a long time player of all the theaters in IL2 Sturmovik, that thing might be a floating city up close, but diving down even from moderate height, while being shot at and shook by flak, that ship gets really tiny really fast. Even coming in for a landing you realize just how difficult it is to get your plane onto such a target, let alone a bomb.

          I didn’t’ know that fact about the A-10. Considering Rudel’s kill claims are probably exaggerated, do we know if the designers of the A-10 took this into account when they asked him for advice?

          • most likely yes.

            his contribution was what he wanted in a CAS plane, which basically amounted to a very stable weapons platform.

            the A10 is that.

    • Larger caliber guns usually did slightly better. 40 mm armed Hawker Hurricanes did OK in North Africa IIRC. 37 mm IL-2s probably knocked out a couple of tanks, but the claims made by 37 mm armed IL-2s is likely as inflated as the Hs 129 pilots in the post.

  6. >>the PTAB bombs likely were the most effective weapon when used in mass(280 per IL-2), but they still lack the accuracy to be efficient.
    In charging bomb IL-2 contained up to 192 bombs PTAB-2 ,5-1, 5 to 4 cassettes small bombs (for 48 pieces each) or up to 220 pieces in their rational distribution of bulk 4-bomb bay.
    By dropping the PTAB with height of 200 m in horizontal flight at a flight speed 340-360 km / h one bomb fell in an area equal to the average of 15 square meters, while, depending on the bomb load, the total area occupied strip breaks 15x (190 -210) m, which provided almost guaranteed destruction being in this band any tank of the Wehrmacht. The fact that the area occupied by one tank, was of the order of 20-22 square meters, and hit at least one bomb in the tank was ample to get it out of order, in most cases irreversibly.
    Thus, PTAB was a pretty formidable weapon for the time.

    Good article on this topic, although Google Translate occasionally gives some troubles understanding the content for most of you.

  7. 4 typhoons is 1 flight.

    By 1944 the operational strength of a squadron had gone from 12 aircraft to 16 aircraft, and a “flight” consisted of 4 aircraft. A flight usually consisted of 25% of the squadron, so early war, 12 aircraft was 3 aircraft in a “vic” of 3 aircraft. Late war it was 16 aircraft in a squadron, 4 in a flight, in a “finger four” formation.

    • A lot indeed. The boiler of a locomotive is quite vulnerable to pretty much anything. There were even specialist pilots, focusing solely on destroying enemy trains.

  8. is their any indication as to what the diffrent forces considered a “kill”

    as most strafing runs would have a decent chance of mobility killing a tank. (even small arms can have this effect)

    • Depends on what it was and what airforce. The RAF would submit gun camera footage first and then ask for statements from other pilots who observed the action. Nothing was given on the say of the pilot unless it could be verified by evidence. Then again the RAF didn’t promote the ‘Ace’ concept and outside of bomber command were fairly reserved with estimates on kills both on the ground and in the air. The overblown figures you are all propaganda manufactured at the time – sadly some still use those, including TV programs.

  9. I have to ask, what about the 40mm and 47mm used by the Brits, the 37, 50 and 75mm cannons used by the Germans, and the 45mm cannon mounted on the Yak-9K? A direct hit to top or rear armor of any WW2 tanks must surely have done some damage.

    • They likely did, but the probability of scoring a hit with these larger calibers is much less than the more common lighter cannons. The British 40 mm mounted on some of the Hurricanes was noted as being the cause for multiple panzers in N. Africa and seemed to do quite well compared to the other “tank-busters”. These cannons likely did knockout a couple of tanks but they didn’t knockout as many tanks as they claim they did. The German 7.5 cm cannon likely didn’t knock out a tank during the whole war due to the poor accuracy, low ammo, and only having 25 built.

  10. Somebody should tell warthunder as they claim to be historically accurate rather than arcade. Yet they make such big pr about ground forces…….

  11. I just wonder how it is possible that reports as inaccurate as those were even given to superior officer. I understand for the first, second, or even a third time, but when you claim that your unit knocked down more tanks that enemy even got, not mentioning that there are other types of allied forces in area, who clearly also fought with the enemy, you must be pretty mad. And what when some important people gone know about your imaginary effort, it will not take them long to figure out you just lie about your work, and this is army, you can’t throw shit like this all the time, and expect not to get any kind of response from anybody. And what makes me think more, is why would they make this kind of reports in a first place, to impress some generals? Clearly not for fear factor, they did not send those reports to enemy’s … I understand exaggerating in your reports in some kind of responsible margin, you know it is hard to really know is that target is truly destroyed, or no, you can’t tell from a distance it was really a tank, or some other vehicle, but reports accurate in 11% ? Someone can get killed coz of this, imagine a force moving forward after this kind of “devastating” aircraft attack only to get know i really hard way that enemy is well, and unharmed…

  12. A good article Frank, im sure the Moral was a bigger killer than the actual aircraft, I know Otto feared them more than the enemy ground forces, and if an army hesitates it leads to more problems. as for Rudel, i would say his claim while slightly over is not too far off, he was wanted by the soviets who recognised his talent and put a bounty on him. and his claims of sinking ships etc are easy to prove.

    but overall a good article